Zoo Photography is a great way to hone your nature photography skills. Whether you are going on Safari soon, or if you just love taking animal shots, zoos are a great environment for any photographer interested in this genre. Of course, for many people wanting to take photographs of exotic animals; a zoo can be the most accessible option. In particular because of the cost and time involved in going on a wildlife safari.
This guide covers recommended equipment, camera settings, and composition tips to take your Zoo Photography to the next level.
Equipment Needed for Zoo Photography
The good news is, there is no need to spend loads of money on a camera. As long as your DSLR or Mirrorless camera is relatively modern, it will be fine in this genre.
For outside shots, you generally want to be photographing with a telephoto lens. Something in the range of 200mm is ideal, but if you have anything up to about 400mm is great for picking out details. You will hear some recommending really fast glass like an f2.8. This is complete overkill for this genre, an f4 or above will be absolutely fine because:
1) We are generally shooting in reasonable light conditions
2) We are zooming into our subject, and this has the biggest influence on bokeh. i.e. you don’t need fast glass to get bokeh when photographing with a long lens.
As well as a telephoto, there are occasions when you need to get closer to the animals. For instance when shooting indoors. A great option for this is a 50mm lens as it is nice and compact / light-weight in your bag, and gets you close to the action. If it is within your budget, then get a 50mm lens with a low native f-stop; like f2.8 or below. This is really going to pay dividends if shooting indoors. The lower the f-stop the more light gets through the lens, which will help you keep the depth of field down; and your subject isolated from its background
Tripod or Monopod
It’s a good idea to take a tripod or monopod with you. However, do check ahead of time that you are allowed to take one into the zoo. In a lot of ways, a tripod is good because it allows you to take the camera load off your shoulder. But, a monopod is often a better option. Zoos can be crowded places, and full of kids running around. Remember, it’s up to you to keep your gear safe, and people accidentally bumping your gear is your problem, not theirs. A monopod gives you a stable footing for your camera, and you always have a hand on your camera to keep it safe.
Not for your camera, you should have one of those in your kitbag already. This one is for cleaning any animal enclosure glass when you are trying to photograph through it!
This is essential both for keeping the glare out of your lens and also great for removing reflections when shooting through glass.
Camera Settings For Zoo Photography
As a starting point keep the following camera settings as a baseline for starting any shot and then adjust as you are doing the shot if necessary:
1) Use center Spot-Focus or expanded center Spot-Focus. This will help the camera get a lock onto the subject when photographing through obstacles. If this fails then revert to Manual-Focus.
2) Set your camera to its lowest native ISO. Normally this is around 100.
3) Shoot in Aperture priority mode.
4) Don’t be tempted to use flash photography! It’s not fair to the animals.
Zoo Photography Composition Tips
If you were photographing on safari, then you would expect that the animals aren’t just going to appear so that you can photograph them. Nature photographers sometimes spend weeks trying to get the shot and may have to keep going back to an area many times.
You won’t necessarily need to spend weeks in the zoo, but you will still need to learn to be patient. You may also need to go back a few times to get the shot you want. A good time to go to the zoo is:
Early morning, when the zoo first opens. The animals tend to be more active at this time, the light is more sympathetic (lower in the sky), and there are fewer people. Late evening, before the zoo, closes. Again, the light is more sympathetic, and if it happens to coincide with the golden hour, you can get some really great light effects. Feeding time. This is when the animals will be at their most active, and you are more likely to be interacting with each other.
Shooting Through Fences
If you have ever got back from a zoo photo shoot and been disappointed that your shots have unsightly fences, then these techniques will help you. Fences are one of the biggest composition issues you are going to face. A lot of animals are going to be behind a wire fence of some sort. But you can combat this and still get good shots!
A technique to get around this is to get the lens as close to the fence as you possibly can. Intuitively, try to get to the center of the lens so that it points through clear space. Then, using either manual or center spot autofocus, pinpoint the animal eye. preferably shoot with a low f-stop like f4 or f5.6. This technique works most effectively when there is space between you and the subject. The fence will still be on the edge of your shot but will blur out.
Of course, sometimes, there is some form of double barrier in place stopping you get right up to the fence. Still use the same technique though, but with the camera resting on your monopod or tripod to keep the center spot consistent. Again, this technique works most effectively when there is a decent amount of separation between you and the subject.
Another thing to consider is the separation distance between your subject and the background. You are obviously limited with what separation you can get because the animal is in an enclosure. But, getting this separation can help to blur the background which eliminates clutter. If you can’t achieve separation, then a good composition tip is to focus on details in the animal; like the face or patterns and textures. This is exactly what I did in the image below, photographed in Rome Zoo.
You may still see signs of the wire in your final shot, but it’s normally possible to edit these out during post-processing if you are comfortable using the clone brush in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom.
So, to conclude:
1) Get as close to the fence as you can and try to shoot through the gaps.
2) Use a low ISO to keep noise to a minimum.
3) Use a low f-stop e.g. f4 or below, which will help blend out the fence.
4) The low depth of field will also help blur the background behind the subject.
5) Try to pinpoint details on the animal rather than wider catch-all shots.
6) Post-processing is a great way to eliminate areas in an image where the fence is still visible.
Shooting Through Glass
Probably the second biggest composition problem you find in zoos is photographing through glass. Not only are there reflections, but you will probably have to deal with scratches in the glass, as well as oily residue and dirt.
Try to find an area of glass that is relatively ok, and use a cleaning cloth to remove any oily smudges. When composing, fitting your lens hood and pushing the front of the hood right up to the glass will help deal with reflections. The downside of this technique is that you are reducing the amount of light getting into the lens, so you may need to push the ISO up a little, say 200 or even 400.
If your camera struggles with spot focus, and you are comfortable doing so, then use manual focus. Again, try to think about the amount of separation that you have between you, the subject, and the background. You can get away with wider shots of your subject using this technique but also think about picking out details for more intimate shots. I shot this little Mangabey through glass using these techniques.
So, to conclude:
1) Clean an area of the glass and use a lens hood.
2) Get as close to the glass as you can with the lens hood against the glass surface.
3) Use the center spot focus or manual mode if you are comfortable doing so.
4) Start with low ISO, but then up that if needed.
5) Use a low f-stop e.g. f4 or below to help blur the background behind the subject.
6) You can go for wider shots but also try to pinpoint details on the animal.
7) Post-processing is a great way to eliminate areas in an image where the fence is still visible.
Zoo Photography and the Human Dimension
It’s so easy to get really focused on the animals when at the zoo, and not look at what’s going on around you. You can get some candid images of people interacting with the animals. Obviously don’t go around taking pictures of people without their permission! But, if you have your family with you, then think about interactive shots.
General Composition Tips
In a lot of ways, photographing animals is a lot like natural light portrait photography.
1) Try to think about how the animal background will look, and pick out the best angles for a shot.
2) Maintain separation distance between you and the subject, and the subject and its. background when you can. This will make the animal stand out by blurring the background.
3) Try and photograph the animals with the light behind them. This helps them stand out, and if you get it right, you can achieve a nice rim light effect.
4) You can take this up a level and experiment setting the exposure of your camera up by one stop. This is really useful in bright light, and has the effect of slightly overexposing the sky, but makes the animal really stand out against the background.
5) Always focus on the eyes. The eyes then become the focal point for the image, with the depth of field sitting slightly in front and behind the animal.
6) Take lots of shots! Animals’ expressions and behavior can change quickly, so don’t be afraid to take lots of pictures. You can always delete the ones you don’t want later.
Also, it’s worth photographing from the animal’s level, as you tend to get more sympathetic shots.
Zooming in and filling the frame with your subject is a great way to make your shots not look like they came from a zoo. This is useful when the background and/or surroundings do not look like the animal’s natural habitat, as it blurs out the background.
Some Things You Shouldn’t Do
Hopefully, all of these are quite intuitive, but I thought they were worth adding:
1) Don’t use a flash gun, it disturbs and/or distresses the animals.
2) Don’t try and attract the attention of animals by knocking on the glass of the enclosure or making noises. Patience is key.
3) Don’t feed any of the animals unless it is under the guidance/permission of the zoo.
4) Don’t get frustrated with other people in the zoo.
After your photoshoot, there are some things you can do to get the best out of your photos:
Cropping your images is a great way to remove clutter and/or unsightly background Use the clone tool and repair tools in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom to eliminate unsightly reflections, fence wires, background clutter, etc.
Zoo Photography – Final Thoughts
Zoo Photography is a great way to hone your photography skills, and it’s also a great way to learn about the world around us. It can be challenging, it can be frustrating when you don’t get the shots you want. The key is practice makes perfect, and over time you will hone your skills in this genre.