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10 Tips For Zoo Photography

October 22, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

This past weekend I had an opportunity to make a trip to a near by zoo with my hubby, D, and a great friend, DL. Now you all know that I could spend the whole day at the zoo. I'd much rather capture images of lions and tigers and bears than to capture a senior portrait any ol' day! So as you can imagine I had a great time. Did I come home with lots of amazing images. No. But I did add a couple to my collection that I am happy with.

The Gate KeeperThe Gate Keeper

D has been building up his photography skills for a couple of years now and doesn't need my help any more. You should see some of the shots he got of the bears playing in the water in a new enclosure at the little zoo in Great Bend, Ks. [The same zoo he and DL and I just visited.]

DL on the other hand is just getting a start at building up her photography skills and that got me to thinking....... I should do a post with a few random tips. What better subject to make a list of tips for than the zoo!!

So listed in no particular order...a few random tips for your zoo photography safari.

  1. A nice zoom lens is a must. Something with an upper reach of 200mm to 300mm would be awesome. Or a good point and shoot with a nice 10x to 12x super zoom would also work. The nice long reach will help you get through the bars and wires of those enclosures. Having said that....I personally do not own such a lens and do all my zoo photography with my Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L lens. While not the ideal length for zoo photography it is an awesome lens and does produce nice images!
  2. Stability. You must keep your camera steady while shooting anything. Use a tripod if you can do so, however a lot of zoos do not allow you to carry them in with you. Another option is to use a monopod to help support the weight of your camera while you hold it steady to shoot. I have taken my monopod into several zoos with no problem. What I do most of the time is to use what is at hand. You can lean against light poles and fence posts, you can rest your left elbow along the tops of fences or backs of benches, or if kneeling you can rest your elbow on your own knee. Keep your right hand firmly on your camera body and those fingers ready to operate the buttons you need and your left hand, with thumb pointed upwards and fingers making a cradle, under your lens to keep it steady. Keep you elbows close to your body and stand with a slightly wider stance to create a bit of a tripod with your own body. Stability is especially important with long reaching lenses as those lenses not only magnify your subject; they also magnify every little motion you might make and increase the amount of camera shake in your final image.
  3. Use a lens hood. You will be shooting outdoors with little control over the angles that you can shoot from and sometimes you will need to shoot into the sun or through glass. A lens hood will help cut back the glare and give you a cleaner looking image. Think of it like putting your hand above your eyes to shade your vision on a sunny day. Things look much clearer when you do that don't they?
  4. Get in close and fill the frame with your animal. By zooming in close you will crop out some of the fences, signs, other zoo visitors, and other distracting elements that will take away the impact of the animal and shout "this image was taken at the zoo!".
  5. Focus on the eyes of your subject. If the eyes are sharp you will create more of a connection between you and the animal and if the eyes are sharp you know the rest of the subject will be perfect too.
  6. Shooting through those glass windows is a great way to avoid the bars of the cages but it has challenges all of its own. If you think far enough ahead, like before you leave your house, bring along a small cloth like a kitchen tea towel. People might just think you are crazy but you might be able to wipe some of the smudges from the glass and give yourself a little less dirt to shoot through.  If not just find that spot on the glass that has less scratches, fewer nose prints and hand prints, and less dirt on the inside. Use your lens hood, or your hand if you  need to, to block light from your lens and help cut back the glare and reflections in the glass. Get your lens as close to the glass as you can to eliminate as many reflections as you can. Wear darker colored clothing too, it seems to create less distracting reflections on the glass than brighter and lighter colors do.
  7. The bars and wires of the cages get in the way and really make it hard to get a clear shot of those animals. But you wouldn't want to be that close to those wild beasties without that fence in-between you! So you have to make the best of it. Look for a wider opening in the bars if you can find one, get your lens as close to the fence as you can without breaking any rules or crossing any barriers, use longer focal lengths to get past the bars and bring the animal closer to you, and use a wider aperture to blur away the fence and make it disappear. Wait for the animal to move back away from the fence towards the back of his enclosure and shoot. If you get it just right you won't see that fence in your image at all. If you are using a point and shoot that does not allow you to control your aperture try portrait mode, portrait mode by default uses a wider aperture setting.
  8. Get to the zoo early. Most zoos feed the animals at opening time and that is when they are the most active. They are watching and listening for those zoo keepers to come around with their breakfast! The keepers may also be bringing a special treat or new enrichment item for them and this will keep them active for a quiet a while. If you get to the zoo later you might just miss the animals while they are active and have only the opportunity to grab images of them taking an afternoon nap.
  9. Wait. Wait for the animal to move into the area you want them in, wait for them to make a more interesting expression, wait for them to make eye contact with you, wait for that cloud to move over the sun and cut back on the glare, wait for the shot you want. Sometimes this is easier said than done, especially if you are with other people who might not want to spend the entire day camping out in front of the lion enclosure. But when you can do it. It will reward you with the image you are looking for.
  10. Don't carry more than you need it will be hard to keep track of everything especially if there are crowds of other visitors. You don't want that bag full of valuable gear, that you just sat down on the ground to free your hands to take a shot, to walk away as someone else helps themselves to it. You don't want to risk those expensive lenses tumbling out of your pocket and into an alligator pit. And you don't want to have to leave early just because things are getting to heavy to carry around.

 


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