These Zoo Photography Tips Worth Learning Update 10/2021

Zoo animals are some of the most challenging subjects to photograph because of their curious nature. They seem to be constantly on alert for something new to eat, or to play with, or to avoid. 

The goal of any zoo photographer is to capture the beauty of the animal, while at the same time, to make the animal look as natural as possible. In this article, I will give you some pointers on how to achieve this goal.

Find A Zoo Near To You

Panda

Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center, Chengdu, China – NIKON D7100 – Focal Length 105mm – Aperture ƒ/5.6 – Shutter Speed 1/80s – ISO 400

Zoos are great for wildlife photography, especially when the animals are active. Look for a zoo with a number of species you would like to photograph, and then go during off-hours. This will give you a better chance of capturing the subjects in a natural, relaxed setting.

Zoos are full of interesting animals and often have events where you can get close up with them.You can make your subject the main attraction in a shot, or you can use it to ‘set the scene’ by adding something else to draw attention… perhaps a background of snow-covered rocks or maybe just a branch of bare tree amongst the leafless bushes.

Many zoos offer free admission on the weekend, so if you are in the area, check their schedule and see what days they have open. You can also ask at your local zoo if they offer any workshops or classes on animal behavior or photography, and if they do, you might be able to attend for free.

Plan Ahead To Make Sure You See Your Favoured Animals

Zoos are great places to get close-up photographs of animals, because often they let you come right up to them. However, this can lead to problems: 

+ Often, the keepers don’t realise you are there to take photos and they will start to talk to you, and then you won’t be able to take any more pictures without being rude. 

+ So the first thing to do is, make sure you have talked to the zoo keepers in advance about your plans to take photos and he has given you permission. 

+ The second thing you should do is, ask to the zoo keepers for his help: Tell him what kind of shots you want to get and ask if he can suggest certain locations where it’s likely to happen. 

Finally, don’t forget to thank him for his help when you do get the shots you wanted.

Use A Long Focal Length, And A Wide Aperture

Cozy red panda

Red Panda – Everland, Yongin-si, South Korea – Canon EOS 7D Mark II – Focal Length 168mm – Aperture ƒ/2.8 – Shutter Speed 1/320s – ISO 1250

Zoo animals are often very close to you. If you use a long focal length lens (200mm or longer), you will be able to compress the animal into an impossibly small space, while keeping it completely in focus. This will give your photo a “funny” perspective, making the animal look like it is walking away from you.

The second trick is to use a large aperture. This will let in a lot of light, and thus allow you to use a shutter speed that is hight to capture all the motion of the animal. But a large aperture also has another very useful property: It makes the background go totally blurry.

Shallow depth of field allows you to blur the background, possibly hiding a less than realistic animal enclosure. Shallow depth of field is also important in that it allows you to photograph an animal right through the fence or enclosure that is surrounding it. When an animal is surrounded by fencing, netting, or bars use your longest lens and your widest aperture and focus on the animal. If the fencing falls far enough out of the cameras zone of focus it will become “invisible” in your image.

Camera Settings

When photographing animals, you’ll want to use a low ISO and hight shutter speed. This will allow you to use a large aperture (wide-open) and thus, capture the animal in sharp focus. 

A rule of thumb is, the shorter the focal length of your lens, the lower the ISO you should use. If you are using a 50mm lens, you should use an ISO of 100 or less. However, if you are using a longer focal length, you should use an ISO of 200 or less. You can always increase the ISO if necessary, but remember that the higher the ISO, the more grainy the image will appear.

Also, a low ISO will give you greater control over depth of field, which is the area in front of and behind your subject that is in sharp focus. When you have a small area of sharp focus, the viewer’s eye is attracted to this area, and it draws the attention away from any other areas that are not as sharp. This can be good or bad, depending on what you are trying to achieve with your photo. If you are trying to catch the viewer’s attention and draw him/her to your photo, a small area of sharp focus will work best.

Photographing Through The Glass

Jellyfish

Jellyfish – From an aquarium at the Henry Doorly Zoo – Model L16 – Focal Length 28mm – Aperture ƒ/15 – Shutter Speed 1/25s – ISO 3200

This is the most overlooked technique in all of zoo photography. Not only that, many photographers don’t even know it exists! You see, when you are photographing an animal through a glass enclosure, it can be tricky to get the right exposure, because the glass will reflect light back to the subject and make it overexposed. 

But, if you learn how to do it, you can create some of the most dramatic and unusual zoo photographs ever taken. All you need is a telephoto lens (200mm or longer), a sturdy tripod, and a cable release. What you do is, attach the cable release to your camera, position yourself outside the enclosure so you have a clear view of the inside, set your camera to manual mode, focus, then use the cable release to take your photo. 

The picture will be sharp, because you are using a long exposure. However, the background will be slightly out of focus, because of the glass. And, when you combine this with the fact the animal is sharply in focus, it creates an optical illusion that makes the background seem much further away than it is. This is a very useful trick to know, because it can be used in many different ways.

Also, if you are going to be photographing through glass, wear plain, dark clothes. A dark t-shirt will absorb light, rather than reflecting it back onto the glass in front of you and significantly reduce reflections and glare. You can’t control what everyone else is wearing, but if you wait for the kid in the bright red t-shirt to walk by, your darker clothes won’t be introducing new glare and reflections into your images. These tips for photographing through glass work well at aquariums as well.

Photographing Through The  Fence

A sleeping koala

A sleeping Koala – Kuranda Koala Gardens, Kuranda, Australia – Nikon COOLPIX P900 – Focal Length 33.0mmmm – Aperture ƒ/4.5 – Shutter Speed 1/200s – ISO 400

Most people think it is difficult to photograph animals through the bars of a zoo’s fence. They are usually right. But there is a way around this, and it is to use the animal itself as your subject.

If you know what you are doing, you can make almost any animal a great photo subject. All you need to do is find the best angle at which to shoot it and then compose your image so the animal is the main focus. 

If you are patient, you will find plenty to photograph, including the animals interacting with these invisible boundaries. It’s a great way to add variety and interest to your zoo photos and gives you a chance to show off your creativity!

Weather

Winter is not the best time for zoo visits, as many animals just want to stay warm and cozy inside their enclosures. However, if the weather is cooperating, then you might get some interesting images of animals seeking out the sun or taking advantage of a patch of warmer weather. Look for opportunities during spring or fall, when animals are active and seeking out the sun.

Don’t worry about getting the “perfect shot.” Instead, just do your best to capture the essence of the scene. Weather can be an element that helps create that “essence.” If the animals are excited because it has begun to rain, you might get some dramatic, soft-focus images. If they are calm and relaxed, maybe a cold, drizzly day will produce sharp images with crisp, clear detail.

Capture Your Subject Through Their Distinctive Details

A sleepy red panda

A sleepy red Panda – Memphis Zoo, Prentiss Place, Memphis, TN, USA – Canon EOS 6D Mark II – Focal Length 228.0mm – Aperture ƒ/5.0 – Shutter Speed 1/125s – ISO 1000

The zoo is a great place to practice finding and highlighting distinctive details. 

Look for the little things that make an animal unique, like the tuft of hair on a lion’s mane, or the bear’s huge claws, or the giraffe’s long neck. The lightest feather in a peacock’s tail, the pattern on the fur of a lynx or leopard, the unique coloration of a hyena or zebra. 

If you are photographing an animal in its natural habitat, look for things that are not obvious, like the patterns on the leaves of a tree that an animal might eat, or the shadows under a rock the animal might shelter under.

 Look for these sorts of things and you will find yourself with images that are both interesting and unusual.

Wait For The Action To Happen

Tiger in a zoo

Copenhagen, Denmark – Canon EOS 5D Mark III – Focal Length 280.0mm – Aperture ƒ/5.6 – Shutter Speed 1/500s – ISO 640

Zoos are great places to practice patience. You don’t have to coax the animals into posing, and often, they won’t even know you’re there. Wait until they are interacting naturally with each other or until they are feeding or drinking or whatever their normal activities are. Don’t worry if they don’t pose exactly as you imagined – that will come later when you are editing your photos.

Zookeepers know their animals better than anyone. They can see the animal’s “signals” that something is about to happen, and they are able to set up the shot just as the animal is in the perfect position to make the action happen. So don’t be afraid to ask for help from the keepers if you need it. Chances are they will be more than happy to point you in the right direction.

Watch Your Background: Control Your Shooting Angle

The easiest (and most obvious) way to get good, natural looking zoo images is to control your shooting angle.

When you are shooting zoo animals, you must control your shooting angle just like when you are shooting people. That means, you must always be aware of your background and make sure it does not distract the animal from the foreground. To do this, you must learn to use a wide angle lens. This will compress the background and draw attention away from it.

The background of a photograph can be very distracting and often times, it can make or break a photo. When shooting zoo animals, pay special attention to the background and try to eliminate or reduce it as much as possible.

Conclusion

Zoo photographers are people who love taking pictures of animals in the zoo. This is an interesting job because you get to see all types of animals which you would never get to see in your everyday life.

If you want to become a good zoo photographer, you should learn some basic tips on how to take good photos of animals in the zoo. You should also know some of the secrets that the pros use when they are taking photos of animals in the zoo.

We hope that this article has given you some helpful ideas on how to improve your zoo photography skills.