Taking pictures of zoo animals is a great way to get your feet wet in wildlife photography. There's a wonderful variety of animals to photograph and some challenges, too. This makes the zoo a great learning environment for digital wildlife photos.
Yes, but your not a REAL wildlife photographer if you shoot at the zoo, you say. You're not in the wild, true, but it sure is fantastic practice on animals that you will probably never get to see because you can't afford an African safari or the animals are endangered. Besides, a day at the zoo is fun, relaxing, and great family time.
What's so challenging about taking zoo animal photos? After all they're right there on display for you to see. Well, true, but if you don't want it to look like you took the picture in a zoo, then you will have some work to do. Here is a list of challenges and how to overcome them.
Buildings, fences, walls, etc.
This is a great exercise to get you to think about your composition. Use a long lens (200-400mm. Preferably a zoom.) and crop out everything you can in the frame that screams unnatural environment for the animal. Use a shallow depth of field of f/4 or f5.6. Look specifically for some folage as a background. Choose a higher or lower angle of view if possible.
Dark enclosures, indoors, woods.
Increase your ISO. Don't bother with flash at a zoo. Some zoo's don't allow it and indoor areas usually have glass and it will just cause the dreaded glare.
Sleeping, hot, just ate.
Best time to visit the zoo is in the morning before it gets hot. Find out from the zoo when the particular animal you want to photograph is fed. You want to be there before or during feeding time. The critter will be more active. If the animal is sleeping, you'll have to try later. See if someone at the zoo can tell you when the animal becomes active.
Cage bars, glass, mesh fences.
When shooting pictures of zoo animals through glass you often have to contend with glare even when you don't use flash. Just keep moving around and trying different angles to the glass until you don't get glare. You can try just putting your camera right up to the glass, too.
As you can see in the photo above, there is a spot of water on the window that has left some discoloration in the bear fur. A little photoshop can remove it or just keep shooting and changing your position until you find a clear spot.
Here is the above photo corrected with a little levels and the burn tool in photoshop.
To shoot through bars and fences, get your lens right up next to the bar/fence and use a shallow depth of field.
Remember you won't be the only one there. Excited children can't help but stick their head in front of your camera so they can get a better look just as you take a picture. Be patient with them, they will move on quickly as their enthusiasm bubbles over and the next exhibit is calling to them.
Taking pictures of zoo animals is perfect practice for learning to deal with moving animals in the wild. They can't run too far away and completely disappear as animals do in nature. Zoo critters are in a confined area. Set your camera to shutter priority to stop action with higher shutter speeds. Use continuous mode when shooting so you will have an even better chance of getting a great shot.
Remember to get the eye in focus. Everything else doesn't matter as long as the eye is sharp.
Try to get in as close as you can when taking pictures of zoo animals. You may have to do a little cropping with your editing software to get it just right.
If you have a polorizing filter, bring it with you. This filter will reduce or eliminate glare from glass and will make animal fur look better in the sunlight by reducing the shine on it.
Remember camera safety. If you spent a lot of money for your equipment, you don't want it stolen. Keep an eye on it at all times. Don't set it on the bench next to you or it might be gone when you turned away for just a moment.
I arrived at the zoo as soon as it opened. It gave me about an hour of peaceful shooting before the crowds started to swell. Lunch at noon gave me something to do when the sunlight became too harsh. Then the indoor displays in the afternoon kept me out of the afternoon sun. Lastly, before going home, I spent time in the early evening finishing capturing some animals that I hadn't gotten to see earlier.
It's always a good idea to plan your trip around the zoo. That way you'll be sure to capture photos of the animals that you really want.
Taking pictures of zoo animals was a learning experience for me. I'm sure that it would be a great way for you to practice photographing animals, too.
Return from pictures of zoo animals to digital wildlife photography.