We’ll be discussing eight tips to help you photograph animals at the Zoo. When it comes to zoo photography, the first question to ask is, “Why would I want to photograph there?” Zoo photography is often controversial. While some see it as an opportunity to photograph animals that they would not otherwise be able to, others see it as “cheating.” Wildlife photography contests often ban zoo photos. It is cheating to pass off an image of an animal taken in captivity as a wild image. Personal work is a wonderful way to photograph animals that you might not otherwise be able to.

It is also possible that many photographers are afraid of taking zoo photos because they have seen it fail too many times. Photographing animals in their natural habitat is more difficult than taking good zoo photos. The zoo animals are willing and waiting subjects. Creating the image is all about dealing with their surroundings and isolating them from their natural habitat.

Select the right Zoo

My three children are animal lovers, and they love to visit the Zoo whenever we go to a new place. Not all zoos are created equal when it comes to photography. I have visited dozens of them over the years. Not only can the animal species vary greatly from one Zoo to the next, but so too do the habitats they live in.

The easiest way to take natural-looking animal photos is to use safari-style zoo exhibits. Unfortunately, you will often ride through the exhibit with a large group. You are not controlling the photographing position or the time spent looking at animals.

Open exhibits are becoming more popular in zoos. They have lower walls surrounding the enclosure and don’t require netting or bars to keep them contained. This exhibit type has a downside. They often (but certainly not always) rely upon elevation to contain the animals. The enclosure is lower than the viewing area. Therefore, the walls are at waist height while the enclosure is below. This allows you to see the animals from a clear, top-down view.

Glass enclosures can provide close-up and unobstructed views of animals, but reflections and glare pose their challenges. In a moment, we will discuss how to overcome those obstacles. Although it may seem difficult to shoot between exhibits surrounded by bars, you will likely be able to do so without too much difficulty if they are well-spaced.

I don’t particularly appreciate photographing exhibits surrounded by wire mesh or bars. Although a fully fenced exhibit can present serious challenges for photographers, it does not mean that you cannot get a great image. Later in this article, we will discuss handling this type of enclosure.

While enclosures are important, so is the exhibit where the animals live. Many zoos have exhibits that are not like cages and provide animals with a natural environment to live in. You will be able to take natural-looking photographs of animals if they live in a more natural environment.

It would be best to research what behind-the-scenes tours and experiences your local Zoo offers. You may find that the extra cost of a close encounter with an animal is worth it. Side note: While most zoos encourage photography, some rules prohibit or require special permission to use images for commercial purposes.

Use a long focal length and a wide aperture.

You don’t have to buy expensive (i.e. You don’t need expensive equipment to capture great zoo photos. The animals don’t move very fast and are kept in enclosures that allow optimal viewing. You don’t need to use the same focal lengths as shooting on the African Savanah. But, zoo photography has a distinct advantage: long focal lengths and large apertures are a great benefit. These allow us to capture images with a narrow field of view.

You can blur the background to hide a less realistic enclosure. It allows you to capture an animal through an enclosure or fence surrounding it. If an animal is enclosed by fencing, netting or bars, you will need to use your longest lens and the largest aperture possible. Then, focus on the animal. It will be “invisible” if it falls outside of your camera’s zone of focus.

The depth of field will be affected by both the focal length and aperture of the lens. The depth of field will be shallower if the focal length is longer and the aperture is wider. To understand the impact of background distance, focal length, aperture and aperture on depth of field, you can use an online depth-of-field calculator. You can keep your enclosure in focus while keeping the animal-focused by setting a shallower depth of field.

The animal should be far enough away from the enclosure so that your focus on it does not fall on the fence. To get the fence out of focus, you will need to have a shallow depth of field. This won’t work if the animal is right up against the cage’s front. However, I am always amazed at how many times I can capture an animal through the cage and not pose a problem.

You may need to focus the lens on the animal manually. The cage in front of the camera can sometimes confuse the autofocus system.

Take control of your background: Watch what you are doing!

Controlling your camera angle is the best and most obvious way to capture natural-looking zoo photos. While it is rare to get a 360-degree view of an animal enclosure in zoos, many exhibits allow you to shift to one side or the other. This can make the difference between a great image and one that looks like a caged animal. It can also make a huge difference to your position. You can often photograph an animal with grass or sky in the background rather than a fence. Another reason why a zoom lens is a good idea is because it can make the image look more natural.

Use a Polarizing Filter

The Glass allows you to view the animals up close in natural positions. Glass fronted exhibits have the disadvantage that they can be difficult to photograph. The Glass may be too thick or dirty for autofocus, so you might need to focus on the animal manually. Dirty Glass can be easily focused using a wide aperture and long focal length. The biggest problem glass presents the possibility of reflections and glare.

To reduce unwanted reflections, you can use a Polarizing Filter. Wear dark, plain clothes if you plan to photograph through Glass. A dark shirt will reflect light onto the Glass rather than absorb it. This will reduce reflections and glare. While you can’t control what others are wearing, you can wait for the child in bright red t-shirts to pass by so that your darker clothes don’t introduce new glare or reflections to your images. These tips are also useful for aquariums.

Take into account the Time of Day and the Weather.

Photographing at different times of the day, such as early or late in the morning, can produce more beautiful light. You are also limited by the hours of daylight and darkness, which is a major drawback to landscape photography. Avoid direct sunlight if you are stuck taking photos in the sun. Exhibits with good tree cover will not pose a problem with the overhead lighting. It is important to remember that the bright sunlight reflecting off fences and bars can make it difficult to photograph.

The best days to visit the Zoo are those with heavy clouds. Heavy cloud cover means you won’t have to deal with high-contrast, harsh light. Crowds will also be lighter when there is heavy cloud cover. Cloudy, overcast days can bring cooler temperatures. Animals are more active when temperatures drop.

Look for Gesture

It can be not easy to get a portrait of a zoo animal when you first start photographing them. It is difficult to find well-lit animals, have a good angle, and are not in any way in danger of being in a cage. Finding a way to photograph them through bars or Glass is also difficult. Once you have taken your animal’s “portrait” images, it is time to work on images that display good gestures. The gesture doesn’t just include movement, although movement is wonderful. It also includes the correct head tilt, body positioning, and wings. Anything that adds to an image beyond a close-up shot of an animal’s facial features. You can start to capture gestures by visiting free-flying bird exhibits. Patience is the key to gesture. Wait until you find the right position for your animal to take a great photograph.

When the temperature is cooler, animals are more active. You will see animals asleep in the sun at midday on a sunny 90-degree day. If it is cloudy and warm, the animals will be more active. Photographing active animals on warmer winter days is possible by using warmer lighting. Everyone will be enjoying the relative warmth of 50 degrees on a cold day. Active animals are more likely to offer interesting gestures and activities for you to photograph.

Flexibility is key

It is important to be flexible about which animals you want to photograph to make good photos at home. A monkey, playing happily, will be walking by you. It would make a great image if it were not positioned against its cage bars. The harsh light and extreme dynamic range will ruin a good shot as the lion will sleep in both sunlight and shadow. If it weren’t for the bright red fence in the background, the elephant would look perfect. The penguins are very active, playing in front of brightly painted murals and fake rocks.

Eventually, you’ll find the animals that line up perfectly to create a great photo. If you arrive determined to capture the perfect photo of an elephant, monkey, lion or penguin, you will be disappointed. There are certain enclosures in most zoos that won’t lend themselves to good zoo photographs. You might consider moving to another zoo if you are interested in photographing the animal. Some enclosures at zoos will be more difficult to photograph than others. If this is the case and you are desperate to photograph the animal, you can wait for all the right elements to align to create a great image.

The best way to approach photography at zoos is to be flexible. Instead of trying to take photos of every animal, make it your goal to bring home a few. You will learn to be flexible, and you’ll soon find that you can quickly pass the animals that aren’t making good photos. Instead, it would be best to spend your time in the areas with all the elements that make for a great image.

Think beyond the animals

In this article, I assumed that the aim of photographing animals in zoos is to capture natural-looking images. This is not the only way to photograph a zoo. There are many interesting people in zoos, so it is worth focusing your lens on them. This can make for unique and interesting images. Instead of trying to capture animals looking wild, you might want to document their lives in captivity. Many zoos feature interesting plants and foliage or interesting objects and exhibits that make great photographs. While photographing at the Zoo, it would be a great self-assignment to photograph detail shots, textures or abstract images.

I took a year off to challenge myself to take photos at zoos with only the Fujix100 series camera and its built-in 23mm lens. Although this is not how I normally approach zoo photography, it forced me to see past images that I would normally make and those that required a telescope lens. It also allowed me to discover completely new images.

No matter what your subject or style is, you should visit your local Zoo to see any unique photos you can take this summer. Let me know what you think. Are you a zoo photographer? Or do you avoid it because it is to cliché? Please leave your comments with your thoughts!