Lions and tigers and bears — and gorillas — oh my! You probably won’t find any of these at your backyard feeders, but you will find them hanging out at the local zoo.
And while photographing zoo animals may be a bit less thrilling than shooting animals in the wild (though it is considerably safer), it’s still the best opportunity that most of us will get to approach many rare and exotic (and often endangered) species.
Better still, they are there waiting for you whenever the mood strikes you to photograph animals.
Zoo photography is surprisingly good practice for photographing in the wild, since it will teach you a lot about patience, telephoto-lens technique, and just how difficult it is to get great animal shots even in a very controlled circumstance.
Some challenges of zoo photography — like finding lighting with a pleasing quality and direction — are similar to those you’ll face in the wild. Zoo residents are a bit less afraid of human beings, which is helpful when it comes to getting good photos (and surprising, considering the hundreds of school kids—and their parents—that bang on their cages and make silly faces at them all day).
The artificial environment of zoos also presents its own unique set of challenges, especially if you’re trying to present the animals in a natural state. Mesh fences, moats, walls, partially hidden doors, litter, tossed treats of food flying through the air, and, of course, the hordes of people are just a few of the many man-made distractions that you must hide or obscure if you don’t want your photos to scream “animals in captivity!”
Carefully choosing a viewpoint is paramount to hiding these indicators. But you can use a few other zoo photo tricks, too.
One of them is attaching a telephoto lens set to a fairly large aperture, such as f/4. A long lens set to a large aperture not only helps isolate animals, but if you place the lens against a mesh fence (which is sure to obstruct your view), its magnification and shallow depth of field also make the mesh disappear.
Feeding time is a particularly good time to shoot zoo animals, because they wake up and become animated. The iconic American bald eagle featured in this post “had just finished eating its lunch of raw meat and was very active and vocal,” says Photographer Andrew Thomas.
Also, if your goal is to get good photos (as opposed to just enjoying the zoo), consider visiting often or buying a season’s pass, so that you can get to know individual animals. Then just plant yourself in one location for an hour or two while you wait for the winning moments.
“Patience is a must and I am always looking for a unique perspective where the subject tells a story,” says photographer Jeff Robinson, who made the regal portrait of a lion at the Fort Worth Zoo. “I’m a member of the zoo and I go there often to visit the lions.”Finally, silly as it seems, photos of animals are very appealing when they show human-like traits. Who can resist that ecstatic grin in photographer Emin Kuliyev’s family portrait of gorillas at the Bronx Zoo?