Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, my! Okay, so we’ve all heard the Wizard of Oz phrase ample times, but let’s face it, who doesn’t want to photograph these animals? Unless you’ve been invited on an African Safari or live in an area where wild animals roam, the likelihood of capturing great wildlife images is limited. That’s when most photographers head to the zoo. Where else can you capture a zebra, a gazelle, and a toucan within a short stretch? So why is it then that most people get home from the zoo, they want to delete the majority of the photos they took? Well, there are some tricks to zoo photography that will make the experience more rewarding and perhaps even look as though you were on that African Safari.
Here are 7 tips for successful zoo photography:
1. Eliminate the Fence
The biggest barrier between you and the animals is the chain-linked fence. Of course, there’s a good reason for it being there, and as a photographer, it can be annoying, but not an insurmountable obstacle. The best way to rid the fence from your shots is to put your lens up to the fence (careful not to scratch the lens though) and use a low f-stop for shallow depth of field. As long as you’re able to focus on the animal, you shouldn’t have any fence detail. The shallow depth of field will also blur the background, allowing the zebra or lion or whatever animal you’re capturing, to take center stage.
2. Natural Lighting
Lighting at the zoo is really no different than any other lighting. If it’s a cloudy day, you’ll be in luck and able to avoid harsh shadows. If it’s a sunny day, aim for the animals that are in shaded areas to avoid shadows across their faces and bodies. If they are in the sunlight, be conscientious of too much backlighting, which would only put them in a silhouette with less detail. Ideally, the light will hit their mane or the side of their face for dramatic purposes, such as the zebra below. Move around, try different angles, and always be ready to shoot. The light will change with the animals’ movements.
3. Eye See You
Portrait shots of animals are extremely powerful, and just like humans, you want to focus on their eyes. Their expressions are priceless when their eyes are captured in sharp focus and in the right light. Think about the angle and position of their heads and bodies, too. A bit of a side angle with space to the side they’re looking works well. Other times, a full, face-on image speaks volumes about the power of the animal. This zebra is once again a great example. Consider the message you’re sending. Is it a humble animal in its environment or is it a powerful, demanding animal. Position and perspective matter. But, no matter which you’re going for, the expression in their eyes will tell the rest of the story for you.
Oh, and I love the above image of a zebra. The light and shadows along with the stripes to give you a feeling of texture. And the shallow depth of field only shows the head in focus, naturally drawing our eyes there.
4. Remember Your Rule of Thirds
As mentioned above, if you’re capturing a portrait shot, be sure to leave space to the side where the animal is looking. Again, in the zebra shot, even though it’s close up, the light on the left gives way to the eye in focus. In this example, the rule of thirds speaks to the shadowed and lit spaces. So, remember, the rule of thirds applies here just as much as any other time. Notice where space is. If an animal is moving in a direction, you want space to the side they’re headed, rather than them heading into the frame! Common sense, but when you’re in the moment with a moving animal, the instinct is to just start shooting!
One other important note to consider. Pay particular attention to what’s in the background of your image. If the zookeeper is in the back picking up garbage, you probably don’t want him in your shot. A lot of background “stuff” competes with the animals and will make your image look like a tourist shot more than a professional one. Just be aware of what’s in the background and foreground. Really notice what’s in the frame.
In hindsight, this tip should have come first. So, consider it a big one. I can’t stress enough the importance of being considerate of both the animals and other people. Patience is key here. I think it should go without saying that if there are young kids enjoying an animal, wait until they move on if they’re in your way. They’re there for a different experience than you are, but it’s no less important.
Secondly, realize that these animals’ attention shouldn’t be caught with loud noises, rattling keys, or calling out to them. Instead, merge your energy with theirs and see what happens. Observe and watch their behavior. See if you can predict what they’re going to do next and have your camera ready to capture it. If you’re too busy rattling keys, you can’t be ready to aim, focus and click the shutter. Let alone think about f-stops and exposure settings! You’re an observer of their habitat. Enjoy that and let it flow. Your images will reflect your patience.
The good news is that what you don’t need to do is to pack a lot of heavy gear. Consider that you’ll be walking a lot, having to stop at each exhibit, and there might be a lot of people around. If you only have a Point and Shoot, you’ll be fine. If you have a DSLR, take a good telephoto lens and maybe your 50 mm portrait lens, and you’ll be set camera-wise. No matter what camera you have, throw in a tripod, extra battery and an extra memory card. That should be all you need and it everything ought to fit nicely in a regular sized camera bag (except the tripod). Note: the tripod is optional. It could actually deter more than help. If the lighting is good, you shouldn’t need it and it can be left in the car.
7. Post Processing
Once you’re home and shuffling through all of your images, consider tips 3 and 4. Are the animals’ eyes sharply in focus? Is the rule of thirds working for you? Does it look like a zoo shot or a safari shot? Selecting the best of the best to share will take some discerning eyes, but it’s worth the filtering down to the top shots for exhibiting.