Zoo photography


Wildlife photography in England isn’t the easiest of pursuits unless you’re content to photograph pigeons, snails and the occasional squirrel or domesticated cat. Since I love wildlife photography, I started visiting Britain’s many zoos with my camera and I discovered that it is actually quite easy to take great animal portraits at a zoo if you follow a few basic rules.

Animal photography is easy to do well provided you have access to the animals. Unfortunately most of us don’t work for the BBC or National Geographic and can’t just saunter around the globe taking photos of exotic animals in their natural habitats – and even if you go on an animal watching trip (I’ve been on an African safari and whale watching boats) it is nowhere near as easy to take good photos of animals in their natural habitats as it is in a facility designed to make those animals accessible. If you are interested in wildlife photography I can attest to the fact that there is no better place to start than your local zoo, and I have a few tips for planning your visit that I have picked up in some 25+ photography visits to various zoos in recent years.

Won’t my photos come out looking like they were taken in a zoo?

Some people seem to scoff at the very idea of zoo photography, perceiving it to be cheating in some way, as though the results are somehow inauthentic because photographer hasn’t done the hard work of tracking down the animal in it’s natural habitat. You can make up your own mind about that, but what I can tell you from personal experience is that it is perfectly possible to take animal photos in most zoos that are technically indistinguishable from those taken in the wild and in my book results are what matter. Besides which there is nothing inherently shameful about photographs that were obviously taken in a zoo; a visible identity clip around the wing of a penguin may present an unwanted distraction, but equally the climbing ropes in monkey enclosures can create the opportunities for playful and charming compositions.

Most of the time your composition will be much better if you can disguise the fact that the subject is in captivity. Most zoo animals are housed in enclosures fronted with glass or wire mesh. For glass enclosures, look for a spot on the glass that isn’t too badly scuffed and place the front of the lens touching the glass with the lens hood removed – this will ensure that any imperfections in the glass are not visible in the shot. Don’t use on-camera flash or you will get reflections in the glass. For wire mesh, get as close as you can do it – touching it if possible – and shot with the subject as far away from the mesh as possible. Use the widest aperture your lens can manage to create a shallow depth of field that will hopefully be shallow enough to blur the mesh out of the shot. You’d be surprised how easy it is to make chain link fences invisible; the photo at the top of this article was shot from about 10ft using a 50-2oomm telephoto lens at f/2.8, and there was a chain link fence about 3ft in front of the camera.

Which zoo should you go to?

Some are better than others but I have visited at least eight different zoos over the last few years and I’ve never had a really bad day in terms of results. Larger zoos outside the cities are generally easier for photography as they tend to have larger enclosures, which is important for isolating your subjects and avoiding showing the enclosure itself in the photo, but almost any zoo you go to will have plenty of displays where this isn’t a problem and you can sometimes work around it by changing your composition and taking close-ups. Of the zoos I’ve been to in England, Colchester Zoo is the best in terms size, diversity of it’s collection and photography-friendly enclosure design. Colchester has a strong focus on primates – they have a pair of orang-utans and several species of monkeys not found in most other zoos in the country. Whipsnade Zoo is a great place to find the largest mammals – elephants, rhinos, hippos etc. It’s a little too spacious though to be ideal; some of their enclosures are so big that the animals can be literally hundreds of feet away. Edinburgh Zoo has a panda, but be warned: you get assigned a time slot to see it and most of the time it’s in a small indoor room asleep in a ball. They do have proper penguins though.

Are there any restrictions on photography in zoos?

In my experience zoos are quite happy for you to walk around all day taking photos with any kind of camera. Crowded inner-city zoos may object if you use a tripod but I’ve never found the need to bring one anyway; you’re outdoors most of the time so you have abundant natural light to work with. There are however a couple of no-nos. First, respect any signs prohibiting flash photography. Those signs are there for a reason as animals may be startled by the flash. You’ll typically find these signs in indoor exhibits for nocturnal mammals and occasionally in reptile houses – though in my experience reptiles don’t seem to mind flash. Second, most zoos will not allow you to use the photographs commercially without paying a commercial filming fee to the zoo.

How should I plan my day?

Go alone, or with other photographers. If you go with friends or family you will spend most of your time looking at animals that are in positions or locations unsuitable for photography, and when you find a truly great photographic opportunity you will have about 90 seconds to get the shot before your companions get bored and move on. This is especially true if your party includes children. I tend to traverse the entire zoo looking for opportunities, wasting no time looking for that snake that’s hiding in the corner of it’s enclosure since it is of no photographic value to me. On a typical visit 80% of the animals will be impossible to photograph well because of what they happen to be doing at the time, and it will often not be the same 80% next time. Focus on the animals that present the best opportunities and when you see a good opportunity, stay with it for as long as possible. Animals are unpredictable and may do something interesting at any moment, and you’re more likely to have a good day if you wait for those moments.

The best time of year for zoo photography is in the spring or autumn when it’s not too cold but not too busy. Depending on the size of the zoo, you’ll need at least 3 hours but on many occasions I’ve stayed from opening to closing. Dress for the weather, but avoid going on a rainy day. The animals will all go inside and you’ll struggle to hold an umbrella and take photographs at the same time.

When you arrive, get a map of the zoo and plot out a route. If you’re planning on staying all day, make a note of where the sun will set and consider as you’re walking around the zoo what animals might be worth circling back to in the best light of the late afternoon as the sun is low in the sky. Take note of when the shows and feedings are. Many of these shows aren’t particularly conducive to good photography but some are worth a punt, especially if you can plan your day to be in the right place at the right time.

What equipment should I bring?

A decent telephoto lens is essential – I use a 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 which on Olympus is up to 400mm in full frame equivalent, and I usually carry a 2x teleconverter to reach up to 800mm in 35mm terms, though I rarely use it. You will have opportunities at shorter focal lengths, but less of them. I don’t usually use prime lenses at zoos because as good as they are for portraits, animals have a habit of moving and since you can’t direct them to stay put a zoom is more convenient. I haven’t had much success using flash in zoos – possibly because I’m not particularly good at flash photography generally, but mostly because the places you need to use it (reptile houses, aquariums etc.) are full of glass tanks that reflect the flash horribly. Other than that, a monopod might be an advantage in some situations but that’s about all you need.

What camera settings should I use?

Obviously this is a pretty wide topic but I generally shoot in Aperture Priority mode all day, mostly at the widest possible aperture to create the shallow depth of field required for isolating the subject from the background. Use the lowest ISO you can get away with to minimize noise and use image stabilisation if your camera or lens supports it.

What are the best animals to photograph?

Some captive animals are substantially easier to photograph than others. Every zoo has meerkats and they are very easy to photograph as there is always at least one on guard duty. Most species of monkey are good photographic subjects, but in general I find the smaller the species, the more hyperactive they are and the harder to photograph. The smallest species of monkeys in zoos – marmosets and tamarins are particularly photogenic. Big cats are always worth a go even though they spend a lot of their time sleeping. If you see a cat sitting up, wait a while: he’ll probably yawn. Some of the best photos of big cats I’ve seen are of them yawning. Flamingoes make good subjects if you can isolate an individual. Elephants and other larger mammals tend to result if fairly boring photos in my experience – I haven’t quite figured out why. Reptiles are good if you can get enough light to take a sharp exposure in the dimly lit reptile house. Give the aquarium a miss – it’s near impossible to take a good photo of a fish in a tank. All zoos are different, so experiment!

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