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Tips for zoo photography


A long lens brings your subject close for expressive animal pictures.
A long lens brings your subject close for expressive animal pictures.

LONG LENSES ARE IDEAL FOR ANIMAL PHOTOGRAPHY

If the animals just don’t seem to approach the viewing side of their enclosure, you may need to go to them - not literally, of course. A long telephoto lens will take you in close where you want to be. The relatively-shallow depth of field of a long lens when it is at its widest aperture can often throw an unnatural-looking background so far out of focus that it is no longer a problem. If the background is a diffused jumble of light, it almost doesn’t matter what is in it. The viewer’s eye will be drawn to the subject.

Using your zoom lens's telephoto setting may not be as effective in defocusing the background since most zoom lenses don't have as wide a maximum aperture as do prime lenses. There may be too much depth of field. Nonetheless, the advantage of getting closer to an animal is worth using it, and the amount of the background that remains identifiable may be acceptable, especially if it is far away from the subject.


TRY FOR A SHADOWY BACKGROUND

Another technique to try when you can’t get a “natural”-looking background involves two light elements, bright light on your subject and a shadowy area of the scene for a dark backdrop. Take your light meter reading for the light falling on the subject. If there is sufficient contrast between the bright light on the animal and the darkness of the background, the distracting elements of the background will disappear into deep shadow.

This kind of picture can be very dramatic, and the technique is useful to remember even when you are shooting out in the wilds. You will need to plan this kind of shot for the right time of day, when the sun is positioned properly so the background is in shadow.

Natural light is the preferred illumination for most of your zoo pictures. To put it to good use when the available light is low, use film that has a fast speed or select a high sensitivity setting for your digital camera, in the range of ISO 400.

Be alert for interaction that may occur between animals.
Be alert for interaction that may occur between animals.

Use a fast shutter speed to freeze action when an argument breaks out.
Use a fast shutter speed to freeze action when an argument breaks out.

FLASH CAN BE EFFECTIVE

You can also use flash to brighten a zoo scene and eliminate a distant background that is too far away from the subject to be lit by the light from the flash. This is often most effective after dark or as night is falling because your flash will provide most of the light. Watch for red-eye and use bounce flash if this is a problem. If the background is quite close behind your subject, use a flash extension cable to fire the flash unit off the camera. Hold it to one side at around a 45-degree angle so the light is directed only at your subject animal, if possible, and not illuminating the background at all. The resulting side-lighting can produce an excellent three-dimensional feel to your animal portrait. If there is a light-colored wall or rock on the shadow side of the animal, you may even have the benefit of reflected fill light that brings out detail in the shadows. Expect strong shadows when using flash, so try holding the flash unit at different angles and heights to reduce the shadows, or plan it so the shadows fall onto a rocky or broken-up background so they are not so pronounced.

When shooting through glass, press your lens up against a clean section so the flash will illuminate your animal subject without reflecting back into the lens. Occasionally you will come upon a window that you must stay back from, usually because there is a fence or barrier keeping you a distance from it. In such cases, angle your flash so that it doesn't reflect off the glass back into the lens, if you can.

Fill flash is a very handy technique at the zoo. It can be used to fill in shadow areas to reduce contrast and reveal detail on an animal's shadow side. The technique can be employed in full daylight, with the sun behind your subject or off to one side. It can also be used when an animal is illuminated by artificial lighting, creating a more natural-looking daylit feel to a picture by over-riding the unnatural light.


UNWANTED FOREGROUND OBJECTS

If a distracting, unnatural-looking element in a zoo picture is a foreground object, look for opportunities to block it out. It might be a fire hydrant or a feeding tray in the cage. Can you bend a tree branch down so its leaves block the object? Is it likely another animal will move in front of the object at the right moment? Will the object fall into dark shadow if you return later in the day? Ask these questions and explore other possibilities that come to mind. There is usually some way to work around most problems of this nature if you use your imagination.

Finally, if you have visited the zoo several times in an attempt to get a particular animal’s picture but have not been successful in eliminating an unnatural background or foreground object, you can wait for a foggy, rainy or snowy day. Snow on the ground often changes a scene so that its distracting background elements become little more than a wintry scene that could be anywhere in nature. Falling snow, rain or fog will often block out objects, even an entire background. An additional advantage of shooting at a zoo in inclement climatic conditions is that animal behavior often changes with weather changes, and you may get a shot of an animal’s activity that you would not otherwise see.

Wire mesh and cage bars that obscure your view can often be made to "disappear" by using your widest aperture and focusing sharply on the animal. Use a fairly long lens of 135 mm or more; its relatively shallow depth of field will simply throw the cage material so far out of focus that it seems to disappear, and will not be seen in your pictures. The technique works best when the lens is brought close to the barrier. Don't get so close, however, that you may be in danger.

Sometimes, the animal's backside makes an interesting picture. A low camera angle makes the rhinoceros seem even more massive.
Sometimes, the animal's backside makes an interesting picture. A low camera angle makes the rhinoceros seem even more massive.

A fence or bars can often be thrown so far out of focus that they don't appear in your picture. If the photographer had approached closer to the fence, its wires would seem to disappear. (See
A fence or bars can often be thrown so far out of focus that they don't appear in your picture. If the photographer had approached closer to the fence, its wires would seem to disappear. (See "Disappearing fence" in our "How'd they do that?" section.)

BABY ANIMALS ALWAYS MAKE APPEALING PICTURES

Look for baby animals at the zoo if you want pictures with emotional appeal. A telephoto lens is probably your most useful tool in shooting young creatures. The zoo will often be the only place you are likely to see some baby animals since many mothers keep their young so well-concealed in the wilds. Take advantage of it while you are there.

You will sometimes find that the mothers still tend to keep their babies concealed, but the nature of youthful animals is that they want to be active, and will often "escape" from their moms and get up to hi-jinks that make amusing, fun pictures. A fast telephoto lens will bring them in close, filling the frame.

DON'T FORGET THE FUN SHOTS OF ADULT ANIMALS, TOO

Another photographic opportunity afforded by a zoo comes with the comic antics that can sometimes be witnessed. Monkeys provide a classic example of an animal known for humorous escapades, probably because they are so human-like in much of their behavior and expressions. The presence of people can sometimes be of benefit to this type of photography. Amused expressions or laughter in the faces of children can add to the picture. Bears, seals and otters are also known for their entertaining capers, and fun shots can be taken of them, too.


LOOK TO PEOPLE FOR INTERESTING PICTURES, TOO

The expressions of interest and humor on the faces of a zoo's audience can be worthy of your attention as a photographer. Everyone enjoys watching animal behavior. At feeding time or when a show or display is taking place, people watch with rapt attention. Be sure to look away from the show every now and then to capture the audience's reaction. The pictures add to the story of your visit to the zoo, rounding them out with a human interest aspect.

Including your family and friends in pictures with animals in the background will help them to remember a great day of fun and education. Little children whom you bring to a petting zoo are particularly good subjects for your family album as they react to animals close to them. Take candid shots that don't require them to look at the camera or to even be aware that you are photographing them. Anticipate moments of emotion (surprise, laughter, even concern) when they touch, pet or feed an animal. Move in close, but be sure to get both the child and the animal in the frame for a picture that tells the full story.

People enjoy watching animals as they perform. Capturing their looks of interest, their laughter or awe with your camera can nicely round out your collection of zoo pictures.
People enjoy watching animals as they perform. Capturing their looks of interest, their laughter or awe with your camera can nicely round out your collection of zoo pictures.
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