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At the zoo or wildlife park

The zoo is a great place to practice

Many captive animals are inactive much of the time.
Many captive animals are inactive much of the time.

Before you go trekking off into the wilds in search of animal subjects, you should practice your techniques, test your equipment, try out different films and observe animal behavior to better prepare you and to gain the confidence you will need. There is no better place than the zoo or a wild animal park. If it is marine life that intrigues you, the aquarium is a good place to begin.


A problem with shooting at the zoo is that many animals are inactive so much of the time. How many good shots can you take of a sleeping black bear? So, you should find out when the animals are most active by asking the attendants. Let them know your purpose in asking and you will usually receive their cooperation and perhaps even some helpful hints about the best location, shooting angle and time to arrive. Odds are, a zoo animal becomes most animated immediately before and during its feeding time. Tigers become restless as meal-time approaches, often becoming snarly and appearing more aggressive. This is when you might capture a teeth-bared close-up or a swipe with a huge paw at another cat. Some animals, like Gomek the huge Nile crocodile shown in the pictures on this page, seem only to come to life during meal-time, preferring to settle on the bottom of his pool for most of the day. In fact, Gomek's keepers realize that he is mostly inactive, and purposely dangle his meal overhead, just within reach, so that he will have to put on a bit of a stretching show when feeding for the audience and the photographers in it.


Consider the importance of background and surroundings in your zoo animal shooting. A building or crowd in the scene is distracting and lends nothing to the illusion of the animal being in the wild. Study the enclosure. Zoo designers often attempt to create a natural habitat-like setting for the animals. Use this to your advantage. See if you can predict where the animal will likely be as it moves around, then position yourself appropriately so that the scene can be framed and have the most natural-looking backdrop. You will be ready for the shot when the animal steps into your pre-planned picture area. Many professional photographers obtain excellent “wild” animal shots using this technique.

If an unsuitable background is unavoidable no matter what location you select, or if the animal just doesn’t come over towards your pre-selected background, you can use other techniques to get a natural-looking picture. Relocate to where the animal seems to spend most of its time and especially where it comes closest to the enclosure, then fill the frame to eliminate distracting surroundings. This will likely mean the use of a telephoto lens. Given the right expression or action, a tight close-up of a timber wolf can be a powerful picture.


A number of zoos and wildlife parks are designed for visitors to drive through in a vehicle (the family car or a zoo tour bus) while the animals are free to roam over large enclosed areas. Often, the animals’ space is fashioned to resemble its native habitat, providing your animal pictures with natural-looking backgrounds.

While freely-roaming animals may be more difficult to spot in large areas, particularly at siesta time, many will approach quite closely to your vehicle. Some monkeys, chimpanzees and baboons will actually climb aboard, and have been known to bend antennas and rip vinyl-covered roofs. When a wild animal is that close, be sure to keep windows up and fingers inside. Many animals that look cute and act charming may in fact be quite dangerous. It’s also not a good idea to poke your lens out a window. You may find yourself in a tug of war over your camera with a powerful creature.

Hold your lens up against the glass when taking pictures with the windows closed to avoid reflections, unless the vehicle is moving. If it’s moving, bring your lens close to the window without making contact so that the vehicle’s vibrations don’t transmit through to the camera, causing camera shake. Use fast shutter speeds (1/250 sec or faster) to offset the vehicle’s motion or to freeze an animal’s movements to ensure sharp pictures.

See Your vehicle as a wildlife blind for tips on shooting from a vehicle.


What does a hungry hippo eat? Anything that gets tossed into its enormous mouth, it seems. This photograph of a gaping hippopotamus was taken at Chiang Mai Zoo in Chiang Mai, Thailand, by Tasha Sargent who said she used "a snapshot camera at 90mm zoom, 400 speed film."

Tasha supplied the following tip for photography in a zoo: "Rather than taking a picture of a bored looking animal in a zoo, utilize your zoom or telephoto lens and wait for the right shot. You don't have to spend hours, just watch the animal's behaviour and try to catch it at the right moment!"

Animals come to life at feeding time
Animals come to life at feeding time

Gomek - a Nile crocodile - reaches up
Gomek - a Nile crocodile - reaches up

Shooting a sequence tells the whole story
Shooting a sequence tells the whole story

All over for today! And back to sleep
All over for today! And back to sleep

Animal behavior can often be violent, even in the zoo or wildlife park.
Animal behavior can often be violent, even in the zoo or wildlife park.

Photographer, Tasha Sargent, calls this picture
Photographer, Tasha Sargent, calls this picture "Hungry, hungry hippo."

Further information...
Tips for zoo photography
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