Shootin’ Zoo Animals

I have a dream to one day photograph animals in their natural, wild habitat. Someday perhaps I’ll go on a safari or special trip just to do such a thing. But for now… I work on getting in practice. Lots of practice. How? Zoo animals, of course!

Now, I’ve shot birds in the wild, and once I even snagged a picture of a bear. But there’s nothing like getting a good photo of an exotic animal. One that we don’t see everyday. The only “practical to all” solution is to photograph animals at the zoo. Here are some tips to help you get AWESOME photos on your next zoo-fari! *DISCLAIMER* Zoo animals are the property of the zoo; check with whichever zoo you plan to visit and ask if you can photograph the animals, and if there are any stipulations with what you can/cannot do with the images. IE: You may be able to share them online, but not sell prints. Occasionally there is an additional fee if you are a “professional” or plan on using the images online or for other than personal viewing.

Your gear

It’s a good idea to pack relatively light as you will be hauling this junk with you all day. You will need your camera body, of course. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy, and honestly you can get some great shots with an entry level camera. What’s more important are your lenses.

You need a very good performing telephoto (or tele-zoom lens) WITH image stabilization. A macro lens is a great idea, too. Especially for zoos that allow you to get up close to some critters (such as snakes or birds) OR that feature an aquarium. You may opt for an ultra-wide angle, too, if you want to get creative or unique shots. Though you will find you will use this lens less often (so don’t buy one for the sake of zoo shots; you will be disappointed!).

1 external flash (or your pop up will work if you don’t have another option) for fill light. Just be CAUTIOUS of when and where you use it. NEVER use flash in an aquarium (won’t do you any good through the glass and it scares the sea-critters) or in a low-light room and don’t use it full-power if you don’t have to. It’s pretty much just for fill light.

A UV filter for each lens (for protection and to cut back haze) AND a polarizing filter (increases contrast/color vibrancy/eliminates glare in glass and water).

And don’t forget to bring water, snacks, sunscreen and/or money … all the stuff that will keep you happy and healthy throughout the day!

All of the photos here were shot with: Canon EOS 40D, Canon 70-300 f/3.5-5.6 IS USM, Canon 430EXII speedlight w/diffuser for fill. EXCEPT the shark photo which was shot with a 30mm f/1.2 Sigma.

Patience is EVERYTHING

You will need to have a lot of patience if you are looking to get great, non-touristy shots. Animals are unpredictable and can do something awesome at any time. So pay attention! Sit at an exhibit for a while, and observe one or two animals, or a specific group of them if there are lots. And just… wait! Don’t bounce from subject to subject, and don’t think you have to visit ALL of the exhibits to make it worth your while. I like to either plan ahead for zoo trips and map out which exhibits I HAVE to see (usually the aviary, sharks, alligators and primates) and which ones I would LIKE to see. Spend more time at the “have to see exhibits” and make passes through the “like to see” and all other exhibits. I will spend as much as an hour and a half at, say, the aviary or the primate house, but only 10-20 minutes at the elephants. “Have to see” areas are areas that I am particularly fond of (alligators) or that I know will give me a lot of great images in the time I spend there (aviary/primates).

Think of photographing animals sort of like hunting. You find your “prey” and you follow it. You will be greatly rewarded if you do. The chances of you seeing one animal do something amazing while following it for 30 minutes are much greater than if you bounce between ten animals for 3 minutes at a time. Be patient. It’ll pay off.

An Ibis drinking from a pond. I followed this guy for about 15-20 minutes before he settled here. Then I had to wait for him to do something interesting.

Get rid of unnatural backgrounds

Zoos don’t always have the best backgrounds; sometimes there are fences, buildings… people… that we just don’t want in our photo. You can get rid of busy, tacky zoo backgrounds a couple of ways. First, get as close as your zoom lens will allow you to get. Each lens has a “minimum focusing distance”. This is how far you MUST be from something to focus on your subject. For example, the Canon 70-300mm f/3.5 IS USM lens has a MINIMUM focusing distance of about 4.9 feet. That means you MUST be at least that far from your subject for the lens to focus. So, get as close as you can; exhibit and lens permitting. Now, zoom in as close as your lens will get you. Not only will you have a nice tight crop of your subject, but you will also have a very pleasing, blurred out background (“bokeh”). This technique works better with longer focal lengths (IE: 100mm) and when the subject is pretty far (a few to several) feet from the background.

Another way to blur is using your aperture. Buying a fast lens with a nice wide aperture (f/2.8, for example) will make it quite simple for you to blur out unwanted trashcans, patrons and horrible painted backgrounds. Open the lens up as wide as it will go and compensate for the added light by speeding up your shutter. Be sure your focus is spot on and get to it! As a general rule, the eyes should be in focus but don’t be afraid to focus on other interesting parts of the animal – just make sure it doesn’t look like a mistake!

This little Green Monkey was in a glass enclosure with a horrid aqua-blue tiled background. I threw it out of focus by zooming in, but the color was just too much. I converted to black and white to eliminate the problem all together.

Take advantage of emotion

You can create an emotional and impacting image by utilizing those dreaded enclosures to your advantage. You are, after all, shooting in a zoo. In situations where you can’t pull off a natural look or if the mood strikes you, aim to create an image of the animal in it’s CURRENT habitat. It’s not common, since most people want the animals to seem free and happy. But you can make a heavy statement with a bored or sad zoo animal behind a chain link fence. Or glass. Or wooden enclosure. Study the animal for a while, figure out it’s emotional state and try to capture it. Again, keep the focus on the eyes in a close up like the one below. Other things you might feature are animal interactions with each other or their enclosure (fingers through chain link fences, holding onto a piece of garbage tossed in by a careless patron or playing with “toys” that are provided by the zoo such as tires and concrete tubes).

Animals who tend to be the “saddest” subjects are highly intelligent ones (such as baboons, chimps and wolves), polar bears can look pretty bored as can rhinos. Elephants can be tough to get a good shot of, so plan to shoot them when they have a show/feeding/exhibition going on at the zoo. Elephants are very smart animals, but don’t often “look” as bored in zoos (I think they make the most of the situation they are in).

Here, I zoomed in on this baboon looking rather sad and lonely while munching mindlessly on a piece of sugar cane. I blurred the fence by zooming all the way to 300mm and manually focusing on the baboon. You can still see the fence and know it's there, but the baboon's face is the center of attention here.

This guy, on the other hand, was very regal and looked around like he owned the place.

Don’t ignore the “common” animals!

Zoos are FILLED with colorful animals, one of a kind patterns and just in general interesting things to photograph. Don’t spend all day at the tiger’s cage hoping to get a halfway decent shot of the far away and hiding big cats. Instead, check out the aviary and the reptile house. If the zoo has gardens, check those out too! You can often  find beautiful, vibrant and texturally interesting images in more “ordinary” subjects. And, chances are there will be less people blocking your view at these exhibits as well. In addition to having less fellow humans floating around, the “ordinary” animals (aka: won’t tear your throat out if you get to close) are less secured than the more exotic ones. This means less glass to deal with, truly natural “garden” backgrounds or in the case of the aviaries – free roaming creatures you can sit and photograph at your leisure. Regardless of how free roaming they are, NEVER try to pet or catch animals. That’s just asking for a finger to be left behind.

This parrot was one of 2 that were part of a cultural exhibit and - bonus - they weren't behind a cage, fence or glass! I was able to get within a couple of feet of this guy (probably closer, but I value my fingers) and take a proper portrait.

What about the aquarium?

Aquariums are tough. All that glass with smudged, streaked face and hand prints of so many children. And they are almost always crowded. AND the lighting SUCKS. So how do you go about shooting in an aquarium? It’s actually pretty easy. First, you need to get a good spot. I have a fail-safe technique for snagging the best spot at an aquarium exhibit. Spend some time watching and waiting. Usually the big fish will trace a path and rarely make detours. If they do, they usually get right back on track. Once you spot the “pattern” of the fish’s movement, wait for the wave of tourists to move along. Or for one person to move, then make like you are taking photos (even though you really won’t get a good one yet); no one will DARE pass in front of you while you take a photo. Or at least, very rarely. Use this temporary burst of patron politeness to get right up close to the glass. The optimal place is wherever the big fish is turning around to re-trace it’s path. This will be the easiest spot to get a less blurry photograph of the animal. Stand with your lens as close to the glass (if not touching) as humanly possible. Open your aperture as wide as it will go. You may have to boost your ISO higher; go as high as is acceptable on your camera model and set shutter speed accordingly. Do NOT shoot slower than 1/60th of a second unless you are really brave/already have a “safe shot”. 1/20th of a second is a great speed to practice panning sharks with! Switch to Manual focus and wait for a couple of passes to go by while you pinpoint your focus. Don’t move from your spot, and as the animal passes by every 30 seconds/minute or so, snap away! Chances are good you will get a great shot.

Note: DO NOT USE YOUR FLASH in an aquarium. It’s rude, you’ll just get a big glare spot and you run the risk of freaking out the animals. Who wants to do that?

Here, I sat on the ground where the shark was turning in the aquarium. Every minute or so he would pass by in exactly the same manner and I was able to fire off several shots, adjusting focus as need be. This is 1/30th of a second and has more blur than I would like. It was also an exceptionally dim aquarium.

At all zoos, there are some common do’s and dont’s when it comes to viewing/photographing the animals. Be sure that whatever you are doing is not causing the animal stress. Yelling, jumping around like an idiot or otherwise trying to get attention falls along the lines of “stresses animals out”. You need to work on your silent observing skills – this is the best place to do it. Observe the animals, don’t engage with them unless an animal keeper is guiding you. Many zoos offer behind the scenes tours, safaris and up close animal encounters. Take advantage of these, by all means; just always remember to be unobtrusive and respectful. It’s easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment and attempt to get the best image possible. Just remember that these are delicate animals and despite what you may like to believe you are NOT the only person at the zoo. No one wants to be around an asshat of a photographer who is blocking everyone’s view and acting a fool.

Finally, I am a big fan of zoos. Many of the animals in the zoos are captive bred or are rescues. Without zoos, many species of sensitive and endangered animals would no longer be with us. Zoos are a great source of information and teach us to respect, love and value our natural resources around us. Whether you agree with me or not – I don’t really care. Yes, animals belong in the wild. But when that is not possible due to human greed and ignorance, most of our zoos do a damn fine job of giving those animals homes and a chance for survival as a species through breeding programs, re-location and education. I encourage you to research any zoos or animal rescues you plan to visit and be sure that they are among those who have a primary goal of preservation and education; these zoos treat their animals the best they can and work within the scientific and global communities to preserve current populations of species. Give business to businesses who deserve it in your eyes.

*All images shot at Audubon Zoo, New Orleans and Munich Zoo, Munich, Germany*

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