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A Guide to Capturing Zippy Zoo Photos

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Wildlife photography is difficult. It takes determination and money to succeed. You need good cameras, fast telephoto lenses plus time to spend on location with wildlife. If you have all of these things, you have the potential to take photos like the ones that win the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year or the British Wildlife Awards competitions. However, there's an easy way to get a taste of wildlife photography: take photos at your local zoo. There's plenty of accessible wildlife, you can often get quite close and you don't need to spend your life savings on super-telephoto lenses or an African safari.

As well as providing access to wildlife that doesn't live nearby, zoos have other advantages. For instance my local zoo in Auckland has photography classes with two local wildlife photographers – this is an excellent opportunity for anyone interested in wildlife photography to learn from or have a chat with a couple of established professional photographers.

For all the advantages, zoo photography in my experience is largely about compromise. The animals are close, but it may be difficult to take photos of them. Some are caged, some are behind thick glass. This is great for visibility and safety, but terrible for taking photos. Larger animals may be out in the open, but too far away much of the time to photograph properly unless you have a super-telephoto lens.

The challenge of Zoo photography is working within the limitations presented by your local zoo and coming out with some good photos. Here are some tips to help you out.

1. Use shallow depth-of-field.

Bars and cages are not always a problem if you have a telephoto lens. A lens with a focal range of 70-200mm is ideal. The trick is to use your lens's widest aperture and get as close to the bars or wire as possible. The further the animal is from the bars the better. At wide apertures, the bars will be so out of focus that quite often you won't even see them. It works best when the bars are in shade – if sunlight is hitting them you'll get a strange, flare-like effect even if you can't actually see them.

The above photos were taken at f1.8 and f8 respectively with an 85mm lens. The wires are virtually invisible in the first photo, but quite clear in the second. By the way, if you manage to take a photo of an animal with no visible sign that it's in a zoo, please don't be tempted to enter it into one of the wildlife competitions mentioned above. The rules specifically state that photos of animals in captivity are not allowed (although the Veolia competition makes an exception for photos showing some kind of issue, such as the treatment of animals in captivity).

2. Show the animal's environment.

If you don't have a telephoto lens or you can't get in the right position to throw the bars out of focus, you can try another approach: deliberately showing the animal in its captive environment. Britta Jaschinski did this and published a book about it (click the link above to see some of the photos). I took the same approach with this photo of a polar bear taken at the Buenos Aires zoo.

Kinderen met welp / Children holding whelp
Children holding a whelp in a Dutch Zoo. Photo by Nationaal Archief

Another approach is to show the interactions between animals and visitors to the zoo. Zoos often have 'events' during the day when you can watch the keepers feed the animals, or interact with the animals in some way. There are opportunities here to take photos, and sometimes it's the only time that you'll see some animals get active. For example, the only time I've seen a Koala Bear to anything other than sit in a tree is at feeding time. The photo above is a perfect example of kids interacting with zoo animals.

It's worth checking your zoo's website to see if they publish feeding and other event times. This information should also be available at the zoo itself, and will help you plan your day.

3. Look for unexpected subjects

In the hunt to take some good photos of exotic animals, it's easy to overlook some of the other opportunities that may exist. For example, I took these two photos in Auckland zoo. Goldfish can be found just about anywhere and the still life was part of a display. They weren't what I went to the zoo to photograph, but they made good photos nevertheless.

4. Pay attention to the light

The same guidelines apply to animal photography as they do to other types of photography. The best light (if it's sunny) is in the early morning or late afternoon. While you're at the mercy of the zoo to determine opening hours, you still shouldn't expect to get good photos at midday on a sunny day. The light is too strong and the contrast is too high.

You should try and take advantage of late afternoon light when you can. But if you're in the zoo during the midday hours try taking photos of animals when they're in the shade, or alternatively, go on a cloudy day. The light is much softer and won't ruin your photos.

This photo of a Cockatoo was lit by soft light from the setting sun filtered by cloud. If it had been in direct sun, the contrast would have been too high to get a good image.

5. Be prepared to use high ISOs

At some point you will have a problem with light levels when you take photos at the zoo. Bear in mind that the best type of light is shade, or late afternoon sun, and light levels can be low under these conditions.

You'll also need a fast enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake. Even if you have an image stabilised lens, you'll still need to use a shutter speed fast enough to freeze subject movement. Image stabilisation helps prevent camera shake, but cannot prevent blur caused by subject movement.

This means that you'll have to use your camera's high ISO settings. The downside is that you'll get at least some noise in the image.

However, you can minimise noise by making sure that you don't underexpose the photo (noise increases in the shadows when you lighten photos) and by activating your camera's high ISO noise reduction setting, if it has one. Check your manual – it's often in the custom functions menu.

The above photo was taken near the end of the day and I needed to use an ISO of 1600, even with the aperture set to f1.8, to take the photo.

6. Use the Raw format

The less than ideal conditions you'll often find at the zoo means that you'll need to do some post-processing work to bring the best out of your photos. This is easiest if you use the Raw format, as the extra bit-depth gives you more flexibility (we have a series of articles on using Adobe Camera Raw here).

These are a couple of the techniques that I used to process the photo above. I used Lightroom but the basic principles are the same, regardless of the software you use.

1. Raise the colour temperature. This creates warmer images, and it's easy to do if you used the Raw format because all you need to do is move the white balance slider to the right. Warmer images are more pleasing to the eye and look as if they were taken under more pleasing lighting conditions.

2. Darken the edges of the photo. This pushes the viewer's eye towards the centre of the photo, and is a subtle way of directing attention to your subject. I use the Post-Crop Vignetting sliders set to Highlight Priority in Lightroom to do this. I've used this technique with every photo in this article.

7. Other places to photograph animals

 

There are two more alternatives to consider if you'd like to photograph birds. If you live near the sea, there may be a reserve nearby where lots of seabirds live. For instance, there is a large gannet colony near where I live in Auckland, plus some wetlands with birdlife on the other side of the city.

The other option is to set up a bird table or feeding station in your back garden and take photos of local birds as they come to eat. You can either shoot from indoors, preferably through an open window so that the glass doesn't affect image quality, or from some sort of hide. The best setup will depend on the lenses you have.

Share Your Wildlife and Zoo Photos

In the comments below, feel free to post links to photos you've taken at zoo or in the wild. Share your favorite wildlife photographer's website with us, or post some tips you use when photographing animals.

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