Wildlife is a popular photography subject, but you don’t need to go on an African safari or travel to faraway lands to get photos of animals. Safely and easily photographing animals at the zoo can also lead to some quality photos as long as you take the right approach. While photographing animals in captivity will near be quite the same as photographing them in the wild, most medium to large cities have a zoo, making it an affordable and realistic option for any photographer.
Here we’ll look at 10 tips that can help you to get the most out of your trip to the zoo.
1. Have the Right Gear
In order to get the most out of your time photographing the zoo you will likely need a few specific items. First, since many of the animals will be far away you will need a long lens in order to capture them up close. A zoo is one situation where getting closer to your subject isn’t always possible, but your photos will suffer if you aren’t able to make them look like you were close to the animal. The exact lens that you’ll want to use will vary depending on the animal that you are photographing and the size of the cage or display in which it lives, but generally you’ll want at least a 200mm lens for a trip to the zoo. Using extension tubes to extend the reach of your existing lenses or renting a telephoto lens will be a cheaper option than buying a new lens.
You’ll also want to be able to steady your camera, especially when using a telephoto lens. Not all zoos will allow tripods, but most do allow monopods. Having a monopod can even help with simply reducing the weight of your camera as compared to hand holding it all day.
A lens hood is also a nice item to have when photographing at the zoo as it can help to reduce the light when needed. You may be limited to what angles you can shoot from based on the set up of the animal’s habitat or display, so at times you may be shooting from angles that would benefit from a lens hood.
The last item I’ll mention is a cloth or wipes for cleaning glass. Many zoo displays use panes of glass for enclosures, and the glass is typically dirty or smudged. If you have a cloth with you it can be used to remove fingerprints, smudges, and minor dirt from the glass and you may be able to shoot through it without having the glass impact your photo.
Photo by fortherock
2. Check the Zoo’s Photography Policies Ahead of Time
Before a trip to the zoo check the zoo’s website to see if they list any policies related to photography. Many zoos have copyright policies that will ban commercial photography without written permission, so you’ll want to be aware of any restrictions to avoid legal problems. They also may have rules related to use of tripods, flash photography, and other restrictions. Some zoos allow photographers to get early access before the gates open to the public, so be sure to check for these policies as they can be very helpful, even if you have to pay a little bit for the privilege.
3. Plan Ahead
Check the calendar or schedule on the zoo’s website ahead of your trip. Almost every zoo will have different events, specific exhibits, or daily schedules that are worth noting. Sometimes it will be particular shows or events that will allow you to get closer to the animals. For example, the Washington Zoo has a specific time of the day when orangutans are able to climb towers and walk on wires above the zoo, giving you a nice opportunity for some interesting photos. You may also want to check and see if feeding times are listed for any of the animals as they can often be more active just before or during a feed.
Photo by Airwolfhound
4. Prioritize One Animal or Display
In order to get the best photos you will need to determine which animal or animals you want to photograph. It might take you all day to cover the entire grounds of a zoo and see all of the animals, which is the typical approach of most zoo visitors. If this is how you approach your photography at the zoo you will wind up with snapshots of many different animals, but no truly high-quality photos of any animals. The better approach is to prioritize just one or two animals or displays and spend all of your time there. You may want to photograph the lions, but most of the day they are not in a position that allows you to get the best photos. That means you’ll need to either time things perfectly (which isn’t likely) or stick around the exhibit long enough that the right opportunities present themselves.
5. Be Patient
When you are spending an entire day at just one or two exhibits you will need a lot of patience, but that patience can result in great photos. If you really want to go to the zoo to get photos of a specific animal, have the patience to stick around and wait for the right opportunity. Maybe the animal will get closer to you, look at you, make an interesting pose, interact with another animal, or something else that will allow you to get a great photo.
6. Get Close!
The most interesting photos from the zoo are almost always close up. If you can’t get very close to the animal, as will be the case with many exhibits, use a telephoto lens and fill the frame. Photographing the animals up close with give your photos more character and soul, and it also helps to eliminate unwanted distractions that are common in backgrounds at the zoo.
Photo by Lemuel Butler
7. Photograph the Eyes
When possible, photograph the eyes of the animal. This will give your photos much more impact and can really take your zoo photos to the next level. The tip about patience will also come up here, as you may need to wait for the animal to be in the right position or to be looking your way.
Photo by Tambako the Jaguar
8. Pay Attention to the Background
The background is a critical element for your zoo photographs. Most likely you will want the photo to look as if the animal is in a natural habitat rather than a zoo. That means you won’t want lots of people in the backgrounds, or objects like zoo buildings, benches, trash cans, or anything else that looks unnatural. Getting the perfect background will take some patience as you may need to wait for the animal to move to the right spot, but you can also help by positioning yourself. You can also change you angle lower or higher, in some cases, to help avoid distractions in the background.
Photo by Mike Vasilyev
9. Minimize the Impact of Fences
Many animals will be enclosed in a fenced off area, and at times you will be forced to shoot through the fence if you want to photograph the animal at all. Fortunately, there are some tricks that you can use to get quality photos through a fence. Of course, the first option is to find a large opening or gap that you can shoot through without any obstructions. When that is not possible you can try using a wide aperture and get very close to the fence. If you’re photographing an animal that is far away from the fence the focus will be on the animal and in many cases the wires of the fence will be unnoticeable in the photo.
10. Visit at Off-Peak Times
Planning your trip to the zoo at a time when it will not be very busy can really help. You won’t have as many people crowding around the exhibits and you may have an easier time getting the shot the you want and keeping people out of the background. Summer is usually the busiest time of year for zoos, and weekends also tend to be busier than weekdays. If you plan your visit for a weekday away from the summer you’re likely to avoid the biggest crowds. Also, arriving when the zoo opens can help. Zoos are popular attractions for large groups, like school field trips, and most groups will not arrive right at the opening of the zoo. Arrive early and beat the crowds.