Have you ever wished you could go on safari and get some great exotic wildlife photographs?
I wish it all the time.
But the wilds of Africa are just a little out of my budget at the moment, so I have to settle for regular trips to the zoo. While it’s not the African Savannah or the Brazilian Jungle, can still exercise my creativity, have fun and make great photographs.
Photographing zoo animals does not require big expense, or lots of fancy equipment. You can get started on your journey to becoming a skilled animal photographer with a basic DSLR like this one, and a good zoom lens. And now here are a few of my favorite tips for photographing zoo animals successfully.
Use a Long Lens and a Wide Aperture
In order to make your zoo photos look not quite so zoo-like, you want to eliminate as many of the distractions that make a zoo look like a zoo as you can. The best way to do this is to eliminate as much of the background as possible, especially if it involves fences, gates and other artificial elements.
The way to get rid of those distracting elements that just scream “zoo” is to either make them out of focus by using a wide aperture, and by getting in close and eliminating much of it from your photo. If you aren’t familiar with aperture and depth of field, here’s a handy depth-of-field primer for you. Getting close to your animals–at least photographically–makes for far more interesting photographs, and that is where a zoom lens comes in handy. The zoom lens allows you to carry a minimum of lenses with you, and to easily adjust the cropping and composition of your photographs.
My go-to zoom lens for traveling, hiking and outings to the zoo is this affordably priced Tamron 70-300 zoom lens. I can’t imagine too many animals I would photograph that I would need more than this. If I really want to get fancy (or I’m photographing humans), I am still in love with my Canon 70-200 professional series lens. It’s a good thing, because it was quite the investment.
Avoid the Fence
Very often, especially with birds and other small and mobile animals, zoo enclosures are marked by chain link or mesh fencing of some kind. Shooting through a chain link fence doesn’t make for great photos. After all, you aren’t at the zoo to see chain link, right? With careful planning you can often get a great photograph in spite of the barrier.
Choose an animal who is some distance away from the front barrier of the enclosure. Find a spot where the sun is not shining on the barrier, especially if it is metal. Using your long lens, get your camera as close to the fence as possible. Now focus on your subject. If you are close enough to the fencing AND the sun is not shining on the barrier, it should virtually disappear and leave you with a great close up of the animal on the other side. The eagle and bird below were both photographed through a chain link barrier.
Go For the Close Up
When photographing zoo animals it is often difficult, if not impossible, to get a great full-length photograph of an animal and not have it be obvious that you are at the zoo. You can solve the problem with your long lens (I told you it was an essential) and create a close-up, even a portrait, of the animal.
Focus on Their Eyes
As with human portraits, animal portraits are more engaging when you highlight the eyes. When focusing on an animal, always focus on the eye. Even if other parts of the animal aren’t sharply in focus, your photograph will look sharp if the eyes are sharp. We are naturally drawn to the eyes in portraits, whether they are portraits of people or portraits of animals.
Your animal portraits will also be more appealing if you put a little light in their eyes. We call this a “catchlight.” A catchlight is reflected light from the eye. It adds depth and dimension, and gives more “life” to the eyes. While we can accomplish this with a flash when we photograph humans, when photographing zoo animals, we have to rely on the available light source. This is usually the sun, but sometimes it is the lights in the enclosures. To get a catchlight, you need only be patient and watch the animal as it looks around. When you see that little “sparkle” in the eye, you need to be ready to push the shutter button.
If you want great photographs, patience is essential, whether you’re photographing people or photographing zoo animals. Be willing to spend some time observing the animals before you photograph them. As you spend time learning about different animals and studying their behavior, you are much more likely to be ready for a great photo opportunity when it appears. The photographs you see in textbooks and travel brochures are not always the most memorable pictures. Don’t try to duplicate them, but concentrate on capturing the personalities of the animals in front of you.
The whole point of a trip to the zoo is fun, right? So, don’t get so caught up in the perfect photo that you forget to enjoy your trip to the zoo. Make lots of fun photographs (don’t forget some pictures of your kids), enjoy the animals and keep going back so you can keep improving your animal photography. Becoming proficient at photographing zoo animals is good preparation for that day when you finally head out of your African safari.