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Zoo Photography

Tips and Techniques for Better Zoo Photography

written by Greg Cope

Photography is a skill that requires considerable practice, and zoo photography can be a great way to learn how to improve your photography skills in a relatively controlled environment. While traditional nature photography relies a bit on the luck of finding the wildlide, a zoo removes much of this luck from the equation, virtually guaranting one sees wildlife. That being said, some of the same wildlife photography challenges - such as moving subjects and bad light - are encountered at the zoo. Controlling exposure and depth, freezing or blurring action, and guaging animal behavior are all great concepts to practice. Yet the zoo may also pose additional difficulties: crowds, cages, and non-native environments to name a few. Below I detail several tips to deal with these and other difficulties to help speed up the learning process, as well as improve the chances of coming away with a descent photograph.

Hippopotomus Tooth

Hippopotomus tooth at the San Francisco Zoo.

Lighting - When to go is typically controlled by zoo hours, and zoo hours often restricts hours to mid-day as opposed to 'golden light' hours (sunrise/sunset). As a result, photographers are forced into conditions of soft (cloudy) or harsh light (sunny). Both present challenges as soft light results in images without depth, and strong light with images whose dynamic range is beyond that of a camera (in other words, black or blown out areas). While I prefer soft light (the zoo I frequent - the San Francisco Zoo - is often envloped in fog anyway), harsh light can give one an opportunity to practice using fill flash (presuming the zoo allows flash photography). Watch the weather for the appropriate light and time trips accordingly, but also study maps of the zoo to consider the best time of day to get the best direct (or indirect) light.

Equipment - Even though a zoo provides close environments from which to photograph, I would still recommend a medium to long telephoto lens. My lense of choice is a 70-200mm zoom - a medium length telephoto lens yet very portable and very sharp. Longer lenses become somewhat hard to manage, and may be too much lens for the close quarters of a zoo, while shorter lenses just don't have the reach necessary. This does not mean to exclude shorter or longer lenses: see what works best for you (as an excercise I sometimes restrict myself to a single lens, forcing me to be a bit more creative than falling into the trap of getting the photograph that's been done a thousand times). Included as a requirement is an external flash, and as a possibility off camera flash for different light direction. I will typically leave the tripod at home - this not only gives practice to handheld photography but also reproduces how I prefer to work in the field, where there often may not be time to set up a tripod that ultimately scares wildlife anyway.

Patas Monkey

Patas Monkey enjoying a snack, San Francisco Zoo.

Exposure - Of course exposure is going to vary with light. When going handheld I typically work around the shutter speed, attempting to achieve fast enough shutter speed for a crisp image. To do this I follow the minimum rule of 1 / focal length. For example, if I am shooting at 70mm, the slowest shutter speed allowed is 1/70 (note that a 1.6x crop sensor should be factored in if one is using such a camera - 70mm turns into 112mm).

Considering the three variables involved:

  • ISO: as a general rule I set ISO to 400 and vary this number based upon available light. 400 is a great point of reference and allows a wide range of choices for shutter and aperature, especially when working with quickly changing light.
  • Aperature: I consider aperature crucial to getting a good shot, and one of the more tricky to manage. A wide aperature offers small depth of field, and a small aperature greater depth. As a general rule I prefer to work at the wider end and adjust according to light, distance to subject, and focal length. For instance, if the subject is very close the wide aperature results in parts of the subject becoming blurry: more often than not an undesired characteristic.
  • Shutter Speed: as mentioned above, this value changes based upon the focal length. As a general rule, if using a zoom lens, I set this value to the 1 / focal length - longest length if using a zoom lens. Thus for a 70-200mm zoom, the minimum is 1/200 (assuming a full frame sensor).

Of course exposure constraints go hand in hand and the rules above are simply general rules. Why the general rules? Often with wildlife one may not have the time to think hard about all the factors. Constraining most variables and letting one or two be the mobile element greatly facilitates this. I often stick with the aperature priority setting and a center weight meter - when setting up for a shot I quickly check the shutter speed and if it is too slow, adjust the aperature or ISO accordingly (knowing the dials on your camera helps to quickly adjust without the need to recompose).

Zebra Stripes

Zebra Stripes, remisicent of a fingerprint. San Francisco Zoo.

Some Considerations - Along with the difficulties of photographing wildlife come added difficulties of doing so in a zoo. But the zoo does offer many advantages as well.

  • Moving Subjects: animals move, and when they do give a great opportunity to practice some action shots, such as panning your lens with the movement, speeding up shutter speed, or even timing the shot to mix sharp and blurred elements. Photographing moving and unpredictable subjects is one of the best elements to practice in a zoo.
  • Glass and Mesh Nets: Not much can be done to avoid these, as they are a necessity. Respect all signage and DO NOT try to bypass barriers for a photograph (remember Tatiana?). In some cases another vantage point is available free of obstruction further down the path. Alternatively, shooting through mesh may result in undesired elements, but are possible to crop out if necessary. In some cases, nets and mesh can be composed as framing. Or, should the glass provide a reflection one can try and use the reflection to photograph the animal along with the faces of the viewers.
  • Animal Activity: Animals can be active, passive, asleep, or hiding - and not much can be done directly to change that. Consider feeding times (see below) and even check with staff for times where animal activity may be best.
  • Crowds - Crowds of people can sometimes make or break a photo opportunity, as people can obstruct vantage points or views. Feeding times may result in animal activity, but can also result in crowds of people swarming the scene. Plan ahead, or even step back to encorporate the crowd into the shot.
  • Manmade elements: Unnatural elements - a fence, rail, glass, cement - can turn a photo from good to bad. In a zoo, we have to work with them. One can go two routes: use them to your advantage or try to eliminate. In the former, one can use photographic techniques such as framing or leading lines. In the latter, one can recompose - zoom, pan, or move - to try and eliminate, often easier said than done.
  • Public Appearances: Some zoo's, wildlife rescues, or local museums may make public appearances. As an example, the Palo Alto Junior Museum take a captive Bald Eagle out for exercise periodically at a local park, putting on a show and giving an opportunity for photographers.

The zoo is a great location to practice, and even come away with winning images. The zoo offers a range of subjects from small to large, but also offers possibilities which include people as well. Consider studying the animals beforehand - what animals are where, when are feeding times, and light direction. Also consider timing - both for light (or lackthereof) or for people (or lackthereof).

Greg Cope