For many of us, the zoo is the closest thing we are going to get to going on safari. If you know what you’re doing, you might even be able to take photos that look like you are on safari without the price tag of a vacation in a foreign country. Likewise, photographing in a zoo will allow you to get shots of animals from all over the world in a single day instead of needing to take several trips. Photographing animals in the zoo also produces some interesting challenges. Here are some pointers to help you get the most out of your day at the zoo.
Check the Weather
Before you even pack up the car, check the weather. Nothing is worse than ruining your camera because you failed to check if sudden and violent showers we forecast for the day. Rain isn’t good for your gear and it isn’t good for the animals either. Most of the time rain chases the animals inside dens and under the cover of trees and bushes which doesn’t make for stunning photos. Check the weather for temperate, partly cloudy days where the animals won’t be hiding from the heat or be in overly bright light. If your schedule doesn’t allow you the opportunity to be picky, bring an umbrella and camera rain cover in case of bad weather.
Before you get in your car to make sure you’ve got your camera. Yes, your camera. We’ve all gotten where we are going to realize we’ve left the most important thing at home. Also check for extra (charged) batteries and a couple extra memory cards in case you: a) fill your first one up or, b) it has an error.
When you get to the zoo, grab a map and decide what animals you want to photograph on that day. Once you have an idea of the exhibits you want to hit, figure out the most rational order and then plot out your route. Having a plan will save you a lot of fumbling and time throughout the day.
Know the Rules
A lot of zoos have rules about what you can and cannot photograph and where flash photography is allowed. Pay attention to all the posted signs and read the website FAQ before you get there to avoid any trouble. Don’t go off any beaten paths, climb railings, sneak into employee only areas, or dangle yourself precariously over the moat surrounding the tiger exhibit.
Ditch the Fence
We know those fences separating people from the animals are for safety purposes, to protect us from the animals and in some cases, the animals from us. Still, there is nothing more frustrating than a beautiful photo spoiled by a cross hatch of wires. When photographing zoo animals, you need to focus on a spot beyond the fence. Doing so will allow you to throw the fence out of focus and make it virtually invisible. If you camera has the option, use the single focus point focusing option. This allows you to turn off the camera’s automatic focusing feature so you have control over where the focus falls within your photo instead of relying on the camera to choose for you. One more hint, if you select a slice of the fence that’s in the shade, you won’t have to combat the light reflecting off the metallic surface of the chain link.
Make sure you take notes on the animals you are photographing so you can actually remember what they are. I’ve found the easiest way to do so is to simply take a photo of the signage posted on the exhibit. It’ll include information such as the animal’s common name, genus and species name, place of origin, and some distinct features that separate it from other related animals.
I know you want to get the shot. You breathe for getting the shot. We all do but…unless you rented the place out for yourself, you’re going to have to share your space with the five million other people at the zoo. If you plan to stake out a claim, stick to one side and for heaven’s sake let small children in front of you. You can photograph over their heads without any issue and then you won’t look like a jerk.
Also, be considerate of the animals you are photographing. No matter how jaded or relaxed an animal is, the flash from a camera can still be uncomfortable and disorienting and never tap on the glass or yell to try to attract an animal’s attention.
Pack the Monopod But Leave the Tripod at Home
A monopod operates on the same principle as a tripod but only has one leg and takes up way less room and the set up isn’t nearly as complicated. Additionally, it’s smaller and lighter so your pack will be lighter as you walk all day long. Since it’s smaller its less likely someone will bang into it while you are shooting, ruining your shot and it doesn’t really obscure anyone’s view which is one way to be respectful to the other people who are there to see all the critters. It can also give you some extra height if you need to shoot over the heads of people in front of you.
If your camera doesn’t do well in low-light situations and you need to drop the shutter speed to keep the ISO low, a monopod is going to be your best friend. Shooting into dark exhibits caves, dens, and of course everyone’s favorite, the reptile house, can be difficult. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the camera is to light. The downside of a high ISO is that as you increase the sensitivity, the photos get grainier. Lowering the shutter speed is another way to let in light, but it opens up the possibility of blurriness caused by the micro-movements you make when breathing or the minute shift of your hands. That’s where the monopod comes in. It provides stability that you can’t get from just hand-holding the camera.
The reason animals are so compelling to humans is that we feel a personal connection to them. Regardless of our fear of them, we are aware that on some intrinsic level we share something with them. Focusing on the eyes allows us to actualize that connection in our photograph. On a more technical level, it also assures that the animal’s face will be in focus. Another way to connect with animals is to photograph them doing activities people relate to such as eating, taking care of their young, or playing together. Additionally, to really connect with an animal, photograph them doing something that is indicative of their nature. Some animals are stoic, others an example of poise and grace, still others known for their playfulness, find ways to capture those specific traits.
Wait it Out
Zoo photography, much like it’s crazier older brother safari photography, requires you to be patient. You are going to spend about 10 percent of your time shooting and 90 percent of your time waiting for the animals to do something worth photographing.
Get the Season Pass
If you are going to your local zoo, it might be a good idea to get the season pass so you don’t feel the need to rush from exhibit from exhibit. Many zoos have season passes that are just slightly more than a day’s admission and allow you to come and go as you please throughout the day and the year. You’ll also be able to come back to photograph during different, special times during the year like when all those cute lion cubs are being born.
Watch Out for Glare
Like chain link fences, the glass that separates us from the fish, snakes, lizards, and a menagerie of other beasts can create havoc for us photographers. The surface of the glass can reflect light from our flash or outside the tank causing glare or it can show the reflection of our own camera and the people and objects surrounding the exhibit. To avoid the glare, don’t use the flash unless you really have to. If it is necessary, don’t shoot straight on. If you have a flash that tilts, tilt it up and away from the glass. The light from the flash should still be bright enough to fill in the dark spot. If you don’t have the option to tilt your flash, shooting from above, below, or to the side: That angle should be enough to bounce the light away from your intended focal point.
Get there Before Everyone Else
Get to the zoo when it opens and make a beeline for the animal you are most keen on photographing. Many animals are up in the early hours and then take long siestas in the heat of the afternoon. You are more likely to see an animal actually doing something other than hiding from the midday sun or napping with its back turned to you. Some zoos have days when they allow members in early, before the zoo opens, which will really give you the chance to check out the zoo without tripping over a million people.
Treat the Animals Like Football Stars
Most of the time animals in the zoo do a lot of nothing until they do something exciting. If possible, use settings that prepare your camera to catch an animal in action. Being prepared for an animal to move without warning and very swiftly, allows you to catch the action the moment it happens and avoid your photo turning into a blurry mess. Your shutter speed controls how quickly your shutter opens and closes. Fast shutter speeds freeze movement while slow shutter speeds show movement. Fast shutter speeds are denoted by a large second number such as 1/500. Remember, when your shutter is only open for a short amount of time, it limits the amount of time light has to reach the sensor. You might need to fiddle with some other settings such as your aperture and ISO to get the perfect mix of a fast enough shutter speed while still having the right amount of light for proper exposure.
Don’t Forget the Details
We are often a little bit obsessed with getting that wide sweeping shot. Animals are interesting because they are like us in some ways but also so different. Capturing those little details is an important part of painting the whole picture.
If You Are Shooting with A DSLR...
Bring the Telephoto. That 40mm pancake prime lens isn’t going to cut it for most of your photos today, bust out the telephoto. Often, you are going to be pretty far from the animals you photograph for both your safety and the animal’s comfort. When I’m at the zoo, I usually have a 70-300mm lens on for most of the day because it gives you enough range to take fairly close up photos while having the reach to zoom in on animals at the back of exhibits or up in the trees.
Think About Packing the Crop Sensor Camera: If you have a crop sensor camera bring it along. Whenever I go to the zoo for the purpose of photography, I bring two camera bodies. My full-frame sensor is great for those pesky low-light situations where the crop sensor is great when I need a little extra reach. The smaller sensor on a crop-sensor camera acts like a magnifying glass and magnifies the reach your lenses have but it also photographs less of your frame. If you are going for a close-up use the crop-sensor. If you are going for the wide shoot use the full-frame camera.
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