May 08, 2009  •  Leave a Comment


I’m not an All Knowing Photography Guru (AKPG), but I do have a passionate interest in my subjects (wildlife, usually) and in improving my photography. And like many of our group members, I’ve read, studied, submitted photos for critique, and tried to glean as much information from other photographers who do great work, to learn their secrets.

This post is aimed at our less experienced members. If you’re a member of the Animal Photography group, you like animals and photographing animals. Chances are, you’ve taken a trip to the zoo to get a chance to capture some exotic animals that you may never have an opportunity to see otherwise. And, chances are, you may have been a little disappointed in the pics you took. Taking good photos at the zoo can be a challenge, but there are some simple things you can do to improve your photos and get more satisfaction from your photography. We’re not going to take casual snapshots – we’re doing this seriously. Most experienced photographers are very familiar with these suggestions, and may have many other great suggestions to share – feel free to add to these suggestions.

The first thing to do is Know Your Zoo. If you can, buy a season pass. A onetime trip to the zoo is not the best way to do photographic justice to the subjects there. Start out by going to the zoos web site and printing out a map. Map sure North is indicated so you can orient the map and get an idea of where the light will be at different times of the day. Plan your day and your shooting to catch the best light.

Get to the zoo as soon as it opens (and if they have an early-opening day, be there). The best light for photography will generally be early in the morning, the late afternoon, and early evening. Mid-day is just too harsh to do justice to your subjects. Take a nap in the gift shop between 11AM and 4PM, or go see a movie, and go back around 4PM. Fortunately, you brought your zoo map and have an idea of where the light will be best depending upon the time of the day. Follow the light.
If you try to take photos during the middle part of the day, you’ll get areas of harsh light next to dark shadows and you’ll get either get burned out, featureless highlights or noisy, featureless dark areas, plus washed out colors. Most zoo animals also seem to seek shade and nap during the mid-day, limiting your photographic options. Nothing makes for a dull photograph like a sleeping animal with its back to you.

It may be a good idea to leave the kids at home when you go on a zoo photography expedition. Nothing like having a photographer along on a family trip to bore and frustrate the life out of family members. And bore other people you will. Most zoo visitors walk from habitat to habitat, spend a few minutes, take a quick snapshot, and move along to the next animal. Not you – you’re going to pick only one or two animals for the morning, and only one or two for the evening. If you’re planning to get shots of every single animal there in a single day, you will not be pleased with your results. Do this mindfully – have a plan, and don’t go overboard. Plan to camp out at a habitat, catch the best angle, best light, and the best action. You might spend half an hour, an hour, or longer at each habitat. Wandering mindlessly is for tourists – you’re on a mission. Remember, Mindful photography, not snapshot photography.

I’m picky. When I take a zoo shot, I don’t want it to look like I took it in a zoo. Zoo habitats are very obvious. The trick is to make it look like it wasn’t taken in a zoo. This is not easily accomplished. Whenever we have elements that are man-made and are unnatural to the animals environment in the shot, we call the Hand of Man (HOM). It’s getting harder and harder to capture images of wild animals without HOM, and it’s downright tough with zoo animals. But that’s what we’re trying to achieve – no HOM and no indication that this is not a wild animal. We’re trying to exclude bars, fences, fake concrete “rocks” and “cliffs” that immediate degrade the image quality.

While we’re trying to make an image with no HOM, we’re not going to present this as a wild animal – always disclose that this was a zoo image. It’s unethical to present a shot as a wild animal when it’s a zoo animal.

The gear you use can make or break your zoo shots. If possible, avoid using a compact camera. Because of the design of their sensor and lens, they have a huge depth of field (DOF), making it difficult to keep the obvious zoo habitat & HOM out of the shot. Most compacts also have a limited telephoto range and a limited range of settings.

A better option would be a bridge camera or super-zoom. These cameras have a longer focal length and usually have more sophisticated settings, allowing greater control of photographic elements.

The best option would be a DSLR – even an entry level DSLR will provide better image quality and much more control over camera settings than a compact or a super-zoom. A lens with a focal length of 200mm is the minimum you need. A 75-300mm lens should work well for zoo photography. Anything over 400mm is probably overkill for most zoo photography. The faster the lens, the better you’ll be able to control DOF. An f/2.8 lens will have a much shallower DOF than an f/6.3 lens, and having better control over DOF will result in better zoo photos.

Here’s the section where I blather on about using a tripod. If you don’t like using a tripod, you may be tempted to skip this paragraph – DON’T! For all the same reasons I’ve already mentioned, a tripod is your best friend. Your photos will be much, much sharper. The tripod will force you to slow down and be more mindful of light, composition, point of view (POV), and it will allow you to keep the camera/lens aimed at your subject without making your arms numb while you wait out the animal. As helpful as a tripod is, there are some caveats: a tripod acts as a lure for young, energetic, inattentive, and poorly supervised children (of any age). They like nothing better than tripping over tripods, and they get extra points for causing your precious gear to crash to the ground. ALWAYS keep a firm grasp on the tripod and your gear. If a group of children gather near, lift and close the legs together and quietly move off to a safer spot until the danger has passed. That’s another reason to camp out – you’re taking your time so you can wait-out the tourists and get the best shots.

If your using a DSLR or more advanced camera with a PASM setting, use Aperture priority mode and try the widest aperture you have – the wider the aperture, the shallower the DOF (see below). Most lenses aren’t at their sharpest at the widest aperture, so check the LCD and make sure the background is sufficiently blurred if you crank down the aperture by a stop or two. If you don’t have a PASM option, switch your camera to Portait mode – you’ll achieve close to the same effect in portrait mode.

Use the lowest ISO setting you can to maintain a decent shutter speed (generally 100-200). Don’t bother with the camera’s built in flash. If you don’t already do so, consider shooting in RAW. I won’t go in to detail about the advantages of RAW vs. JPG except to say that RAW will likely give you much better image quality and latitude in post-processing.

If you have a more advanced camera, change the focus to Spot Focus, rather than Local or Wide. It’s usually best to use the Matrix Metering, but be sure to activate the Histogram and Blinkies to warn you about any under or overexposure problems.

Use Continuous Focus, not Single Shot Focus. Remember, this is Mindful photography – we’re not just going to hold down the shutter, but we can take a few photos in rapid sequence if there’s some special action we want to capture.

You may recall the forum post Simplify and Isolate. Simplify the composition and isolate the subject. It’s going to take some effort to do this, but at a zoo, you do have more control over the situation than you generally do with a wild animal. That’s why the hosts on Animal Photography generally hold photos of pets, domestic animals, and zoo animals to a higher standard than wild animals. That’s not to say it’s going to be easy or fast. That’s why you’re camping out in front of a habitat.

To SIMPLIFY THE COMPOSITION, wait for the animal to get away from any distracting elements – the fake zoo habitat, rocks, tree limbs, fences, bars, etc. No limbs or rocks or other elements cutting across the animal. No other elements in the photo that distract the eye from the subject. For a wild animal, you may want to include elements of the natural habitat in the photo, but not in a zoo photo (unless it’s an exceptional zoo habitat)

To ISOLATE THE SUBJECT, you have several options. Most zoo animals (and wild ones too) tend to behave in predictable ways. The more confined the environment, the more predictable the behavior can be. If you have an idea about the route the animal takes, use that knowledge to your advantage. Stake out a good spot with the best light and the best angle, get some catch light in the animals’ eyes, isolate it from the fake zoo habitat, and get a great shot.

If you’re using a sufficiently long lens, you can zoom in for a tight crop, doing either a portrait or a frame-filling image and exclude as much of the habitat as possible. Don’t be afraid to get in close (well, not physically) with the lens.

Use depth of field (DOF) to your advantage. The wider the aperture of your lens, the shallower the DOF will be. That way, you can keep the eyes and face in sharp focus, let the body of the animal fall out of focus, and hopefully you can completely blur the background. The faster the lens you use, the better you’ll be able to control DOF.

Most modern zoos tend to have the habitat at roughly eye level with the viewing public, and that’s a good thing, particularly for photography. We’re going to get the most connection with the animal when the viewer and the animal are at eye level with each other. If I have to shoot down on the animal to get a photo, I won’t take the photo (unless there’s a very compelling reason to make an exception). There are sometimes some advantages to shooting upwards at an animal (we want to emphasize its height, for instance), but for most animal photography, keep the perspective at eye level.

Keep the focus on the eyes of the animal (that’s why we switched to Spot Focus) – the eyes are the most crucial element to have in focus. If the shoulder or foot is in sharp focus, not the eyes, it won’t be a great photo. The animal doesn’t have to face you, but the eyes should be clearly visible. And for the love of all that’s good in the world – NO ANIMAL BUTTS – no shots from behind. The animal doesn’t have to face you, but it needs to at least present a side view.

What about shooting through bars, fences, mesh, and glass? My first response is “Don’t bother.” You can sometimes use a shallow DOF and hope that by focusing on the animal that the bars/fence/mesh will be thrown out of focus. It just doesn’t work as well in practice as it does in theory. I’m going to stick with the Don’t Bother response when it comes to shooting through zoo glass. The glass is usually absolutely filthy – sure, you can bring travel sized glass wipes, and that might help, but zoo glass is not optical glass. Expect reflections and distortions when shooting through glass – even clean glass. Even worse is thick acrylic walls. The pictures will come out blurry – usually with some areas REALLY out of focus and some areas only kind of out of focus, but no areas actually in focus.

A word of warning – some zoos are not in the best areas of town. Carrying a load of expensive gear can make you an easy mark – whenever possible, go with others (maybe even other photographers for a field trip) for your safety.

I hope this makes some sort of sense. If not, I’d be happy to answer questions or provide further clarification. I’m sure some of our group members can do a much better job than I. I am going to suggest that we take the opportunity to visit our local zoo and try some of these suggestions. Let’s also do our next Challenge as ZOO ANIMALS and see how we do.


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