There’s no doubt that capturing animals in the wild in their natural habitats is one of those bucket list photography scenarios. For example lions in the Serengeti, tigers in the jungles of India and polar bears in Yukon can provide stunning photographs. But to capture great animal photos takes practice and often lot’s of patience. Wildlife photographers might have to wait days, weeks or even months to be able to capture the photo that they want to take. There is also the cost of actually getting to these destinations. For some photographers, all of this combined will make it prohibitive to capture photos of animals in the wild. So the other alternative is photographing photos of animals in zoos. So here are 7 tips for better zoo photography.
Plan your day
Even though you are photographing captive animals and you know that you are going to see some, it still pays to plan your day in advance. Try to find out when the quietest times are (usually just after opening times or late in the afternoon). Also, see if there are details of when specific shows and talks are happening. These may offer an opportunity to photograph the animals or even go to other areas of the zoo that would be quite because most people are at the show or talk. You should also check the regulations of the zoo in regards to photography and the use of tripods.
Prepared to be patient
Clearly photographing animals in a zoo doesn’t mean that you will have to stay in a hide for a few days. But you will need to be prepared to wait for the right moment. Animals are unpredictable and so rarely will they be the perfect spot waiting for you to take a photo. It may even be that they are hidden somewhere out of view. So allow yourself enough time to be able to wait around until the perfect moment. A good tip is to find out when feeding times are as animals will usually become active during these periods.
Focus on the eyes
If you are photographing a close-up of animals in any sort of wildlife photography, the eyes are the most important element. They need to be sharp and in focus otherwise, the photo will not work. Even in a zoo, you are going to need a telephoto lens so make sure you carry one with you.
Avoid barriers and cages
This may be easier said than done. Most animals will be behind barriers or cages that will often get in the way of the photo. But they also highlight the whole notion of captivity. There are two ways to try and approach this issue. You can either try to incorporate the barries into the composition to give that sense of captivity. Or you can try to exclude them from your photos. If the obstruction is see-through like glass, with a lens hood attached you can rest your camera on the glass and that should give you a clear picture. Try to find a part of the glass that isn’t dirty or scratched.
Cages are a little more difficult to exclude. The best way is to try to find the biggest gap that you can see and press your camera right up against the fence. Using a wide aperture you should be able to focus on the animal whilst blurring out the fence or cage. Be very careful about the focusing if you are using the camera’s autofocus as it can easily focus on the fence instead of the animal.
Don’t use a flash
This is one of the biggest mistakes that I see people make when taking photos in a zoo. Firstly the animals will usually be too far away so the flash will not make any difference. Secondly, if you are photographing anything behind glass, all a flash will do is bounce back of it and into your camera. But most importantly a flash can startle and distress the animals whether that is in the wild or in a zoo. So keep your flash turned off.
Get your settings right
There are so many variables when you are dealing with animals that it is impossible to have an “ideal setting”. But as a general rule, your hero of the photo is the animal. So you need to try and make them stand out against their background. Don’t forget that most animals have evolved to blend into their environment. The best way to do this is to choose a wide aperture to blur the background. This will help make them stand out. If the animal is moving set your camera to continuous focus and shoot in high-speed burst mode. Remember that depending on how fast they are moving you are going to need a faster shutter speed. If the animal is still you can afford to photograph them using slightly slower shutter speed and without burst mode or continuous focus.
Don’t forget the people
Remember to also capture some photos of people. Whether it’s children gasping in awe after seeing the lions or riding a pony, capturing photos of people enjoying the zoo can give a different perspective. When combined with photos of the animals it can give your set of photos more variety.
Photographing zoos is not only a great way to practice wildlife photography but it can also provide you with great photos. Whilst you may not capture photos of the animals in their natural environment, you will often be able to get much closer than you would in the wild. Take your time and just focus on capturing a few great photos than a hundred mediocre ones. You may just find that you have photos that you can be proud of.
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. No usage without permission.