Capturing images of zoo animals should be easy. After all, they are waiting for us to take their photo in their enclosures. But the trick to capturing great zoo photos is to capture a photo that doesn’t look like it was taken in a zoo. To get these strong shots, you don’t want to see fences or food bowls and you want to capture expressions of the animals, otherwise your images will look like snapshots. So, here are five tips to improve your zoo animal images. To keep this simple, I have focused these tips on enclosures with fences.
1. Long lens – Use a long lens to blur out the fence in the foreground. Focal lengths from 200-400mm are great lenses to use in zoos. It isn’t as simple as just using the long lens though, you also need to position your lens as close to the fence as possible. So, lean in, zoom and shoot. As you setup your shot, you will want to pay attention to light hitting the fence. If there is light on the fence you are shooting through, that light may become a reflection in your frame. Try to shoot through an area of the fence that is in shade.
2. Wide open aperture – Using a long lens is only half of the formula for shooting through fences. The second half of the formula is to use a wide open aperture. Setting your aperture at f/2.8 or f/4 for example, will blur the fence in the foreground. If the animal is touching the fence, you won’t be able to blur out the fence, so start shooting when the animal is several feet away from the fence. Combine this with the long lens and your fences will be unnoticeable.
3. Background – Now that you have the technical aspects of a strong zoo photo, it is time to finesse the details of the shot and that starts with the background of the image. Can you see fences in your frame? How about food bowls? Are there sticks or trees creating unnatural attachments in your frame? Move yourself around the enclosure to omit these items from the background or foreground. Shooting from a higher angle can minimize the amount of background in the photo and shooting from a low angle will accentuate the animal and minimize the foreground. Using both of these techniques will create an image focused strictly on the animal and omit other distractions.
4. Shadows – Every enclosure is unique and shadows in the enclosure can be your best friend or your worst enemy. If the shadow is positioned behind the animal, your image will pop due to the juxtaposition of contrast. However, if the animal is sitting in shadows cast from fences or other distracting elements, the image doesn’t work because the viewer can see the fence shadows and these shadows are not natural.
5. Patience – This last tip is patience. Patience is what brings the image together. Whether you can be patient enough to sit for hours or minutes is up to you. If the animal is sleeping, come back later and often they will have moved to a better location in the habitat. If a docent from the zoo is nearby, ask them when these animals are most active (feeding times always wake animals). If the animal is awake, be patient and wait for an expression. Capturing images of sleeping animals is nice, but not as interesting as images exhibiting behaviors.
That’s it. Five simple tips to improve your zoo photography! If you want personal attention you can always join me on my zoo workshops at the Wildlife World Zoo. Happy Shooting!