Every photographer is planning to go on an African safari some day, even those of us who know we're probably never going to go on an African safari. But dreaming is fun, and if you don't really think you're going to ever get out there in that zebra striped jeep chasing elephants and watching lions take down wildebeests, there's a next-best thing. That's right! It's your local zoo. And if you play it right, your photos might look as if you actually went out on safari.
Zoos come in many varieties. There's the well-funded, big-city zoo, where the animals are separated from the public by cleverly designed moats and ditches rather than glass and wire fences. It's much easier to get a nice shot at a zoo like this, because with a decent zoom lens nothing stands between you and your subject.
Then there's the low-budget local zoo that probably gets a lot of its funds from donations and may not have the staff and money needed to design, build and maintain natural-looking enclosures. Your "I took these pictures on safari" look isn't going to go very far at these kinds of zoos, but there are things you can do to draw your viewer's attention away from those obviously man-made backgrounds and foregrounds.
Your enemies: glass and wire
Your two biggest obstacles in this type of zoo are glass and wire, both of which present challenges for photography.
The glare/reflections are a distraction from this otherwise great action shot.
In this shot there is virtually no reflection or glare, though there is obviously glass between the bear and the photographer
If your zoo has a lot of glass-faced enclosures, you will need to invest in a circular polarizing filter to help cut down on the amount of glare coming off of the glass surface. You'll also need a rag. When you find an animal you want to photograph, whip out that rag and use it to wipe down the glass, because there will undoubtedly be fingerprints, sneezes, face-smears and probably spilled cokes or melted ice cream on those glass surfaces. On second thought, bring some windex and a roll of paper towels, because you probably don't want to have to pocket that old rag after you use it to wipe off all that nastiness.
Once your glass surface is clear, look through your viewfinder and twist the ring of the polarizer until most or all of the reflections have disappeared. If you aren't familiar with polarizers, the twisting action lines the polarizer up with the angle of the glare, which blocks it and effectively erases it from the scene, while letting through the light that you do need.
A lens hood can also help cut back on glare, or if worst comes to worst, you can cup a hand around the end of the lens to help block out some of that reflection.
No matter how low the light is, don't be tempted to use your flash. The first reason is because it upsets the animals, and also the zookeepers. Many zoos have a "no flash" policy, and you should follow it. The second reason is because flash creates extra glare - really bad glare that even your polarizer can't make disappear. If you find yourself needing more light, turn up your ISO and accept that you're going to have a little extra noise in your image, and/or choose a wider aperture and accept that you aren't going to have a lot of depth of field.
Animals Behind Wire
What if there's no glass, and instead there's an ugly wire fence? So much for as-on-safari photos. But wait! There are still plenty of techniques you can use to minimize the appearance of a wire fence or sometimes make it disappear altogether. And I don't mean wire cutters.
First make sure your camera is set to manual focus. Nothing is quite so annoying as an autofocus that can't figure out what it's supposed to be focusing on. You'll need to be the one in control of the focus or you may wind up with a lot of lovely, perfectly focused images of... the fence.
Now choose an animal that isn't lounging right next to the wire. The further away from the fence he/she is, the more successful your fenceless image will be. If the animal is right next to the wire, you're going to have a sharply focused animal right next to a pretty decently focused fence, which is not what you want in when trying to create a safari image.
You can still see the wire in this image, but the photographer has come close to focusing it out of the shot altogether.
Now choose a wide aperture, which will give you a shallow depth of field, throwing that fence out of focus (sometimes so far out of focus that you can't tell it's there) and giving the star of your image - the animal - your viewer's attention. If possible, get close to the fence, so close that even if you were trying to focus on the wire your lens wouldn't be capable of doing so. If it's a fence with wide links, you can try positioning your lens so that you're shooting through the links; if not, try to position the lens so that your focal point (usually the animal's eyes) is positioned in the space between the links.
Some Other Tips
Using a wider aperture can also help throw a distracting background out of focus.
Pay close attention to your backgrounds. Sometimes the excitement of looking at an exotic animal can completely overwhelm your ability to notice that there is an ugly metal shed in the background. Spend some time at each enclosure trying different angles to see if you can angle out any distracting elements in the background, while incorporating elements that appear more natural, such as vegetation. If that's not possible just choose that wide aperture again and knock all that ugly stuff out of focus.
If you have a zoom lens, use it. Get as close to your subject as zoo rules allow. The idea is to isolate your subject from as much of the background as you can, and to capture as much detail as possible in the animal's face and/or body. If you have to tell someone later on that that spec on the left side of the frame is a Bengal tiger, you weren't close enough. Remember that the eyes are the most important part of any animal photo. If you're using a very wide aperture, make sure that the animal's eyes are the point that you focus on. And whenever possible, shoot from the animal's level. Crouch down for smaller animals, and fervently wish for a step-ladder when you get to the giraffes.
Be patient and wait for a good vantage point to open up, then be even more patient and wait for your subject to turn his head, open his eyes or do something interesting and photo-worthy. This might be a good time to mention that good zoo photography isn't always something you can do with your kids in tow, or your easily-bored spouse, since you may need to spend extended periods of time at each enclosure before you can capture exactly the right shot.
Show up early, when the zoo first opens. Animals tend to be more active in the morning, and they get lazy in the afternoon. You don't want a bunch of photos of sleeping animals, so that morning hour is good not only for the beautiful light but also for much more interesting subjects.
Also check your zoo's schedule - feeding times can be great for getting a good photo. You may not be able to capture that lioness taking down a wildebeest, but you might be able to get a photo of her munching on a steak.
You can't always make your zoo photos into convincing facsimiles of images you might take on that often-dreamt-of African safari, but that doesn't mean you aren't going to end up with some amazing shots while trying. And remember that a zoo gives us the great luxury of getting up close to animals that we might otherwise never see in such detail - even closer than that zebra striped jeep would ever be able to get out in the real world.
Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?