We’ll be discussing eight tips to help you photograph animals at the zoo. When it comes to zoo photography, the first question to ask is “Why would I want to photograph there?” Zoo photography is often controversial. While some see it as an opportunity to photograph animals that they would not otherwise be able to, others see it as “cheating”. Wildlife photography contests often ban zoo photos. It is cheating to pass off an image taken in captivity with a wild animal as if it were a natural image. Personal work is a wonderful way to photograph animals that you might not otherwise be able to.

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It is also possible that many photographers are afraid of taking zoo photos because they have seen it fail too many times. Photographing animals in their natural habitat is more difficult than taking good zoo photos. The zoo animals are willing and waiting subjects. Creating the image is all about dealing with their surroundings and isolating them from their natural habitat.

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Select the right Zoo

My three children are animal-loving and always want to visit the zoo when we go on vacation. It is clear that not all zoos are created equal when it comes photography. I have visited dozens of them over the years. Not only can the animal species vary greatly from one zoo to the next, but so too do the habitats they live in.

The easiest way to take natural-looking animal photos is to use safari-type zoo displays. Unfortunately, you will often be riding through the exhibit with a large group. You are not in control of the photographing position or the time spent looking at animals.

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Open exhibits are becoming more popular in zoos. They have lower walls that surround the enclosure and don’t require netting or bars to keep them contained. This exhibit type has a downside. They often (but certainly not always) rely upon elevation to contain the animals. The enclosure is lower than the viewing area. Therefore, the walls are at waist height while the enclosure is below. This allows you to see the animals from a clear, top-down view.

Glass enclosures can provide close-up and unobstructed views of animals, but reflections and glare pose their own challenges. In a moment, we will discuss how to overcome those obstacles. Although it may seem difficult to shoot between exhibits that are surrounded by bars, if they are well spaced you will likely be able to do so without too much difficulty.

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I don’t like photographing exhibits that are surrounded by wire mesh or bars. Although a fully fenced exhibit can present serious challenges for photographers, it does not mean that you cannot get a great image. Later in this article, we will discuss how to handle this type of enclosure.

While enclosures are important, so is the exhibit in which the animals live. Many zoos have exhibits that are not like cages and provide animals with a natural environment to live in. You will be able take natural-looking photographs of animals if they live in a more natural environment.

You should also research what types of behind-the scenes tours and experiences your local zoo offers. You may find that the extra cost of a close encounter with an animal is worth it. Side note: While most zoos encourage photography, some rules prohibit or require special permission to use images for commercial purposes.

Use a long focal length and a wide aperture

You don’t have to buy expensive (i.e. You don’t need expensive equipment to capture great zoo photos. The animals don’t move very fast and are kept in enclosures that allow for optimal viewing. You don’t need to use the same focal lengths as if you were shooting on the African Savanah. But, zoo photography has a distinct advantage: long focal lengths and large apertures are a great benefit. These allow us to capture images with a narrow field of view.

You can blur the background to hide a less realistic enclosure. It allows you to capture an animal through any enclosure or fence that surrounds it. If an animal is enclosed by fencing, netting or bars, you will need to use your longest lens and the largest aperture possible. Then, focus on the animal. It will be “invisible” if it falls outside of your camera’s zone of focus.

The depth of field will be affected by both the focal length and aperture of the lens. The depth of field will be shallower if the aperture is wider than the focal length. To get an idea of the impact of background distance, focal length, aperture and background distance on depth of field, you can use an online depth-of-field calculator. You can keep your enclosure in focus while keeping the animal in focus by setting a shallower depth of field.

The animal should be far enough away from the enclosure so that your focus on it does not fall outside the confines. To get the fence out of focus, you will need to have a shallow depth of field. This won’t work if the animal is right up against the cage’s front. However, I am always amazed at how many times I can capture an animal through the cage and not have it pose a problem.

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You may need to manually focus the lens on the animal. The cage in front of the camera can sometimes confuse the autofocus system.

Take control of your background: Watch what you are doing!

Controlling your camera angle is the best and most obvious way to capture natural-looking zoo photos. While it is rare to get a 360-degree view of an animal enclosure in a zoo, many exhibits allow you to shift to one side or the other to make the difference between a great image and one that looks like a caged animal. It can also make a huge difference to your position. You can often photograph an animal with grass or sky in the background, rather than a fence. Another reason why a zoom lens is a good idea is that it can make the image look more natural.

Use a Polarizing Filter

Glass allows you to view the animals up close in natural positions. Glass fronted exhibits have the disadvantage that it can be difficult to photograph through. The glass may be too thick or dirty for autofocus so you might need to manually focus on the animal. Dirty glass can be easily focused by using the wide aperture and long focal length. The biggest problem glass presents is the possibility of reflections and glare.

To reduce unwanted reflections, you can use a Polarizing Filter. Wear dark, plain clothes if you plan to photograph through glass. A dark tshirt will reflect light back onto the glass, rather than absorb it. This will reduce reflections and glare. While you can’t control what others are wearing, you can wait for the child in bright red t-shirts to pass by so that your darker clothes don’t introduce new glare or reflections to your images. These tips are also useful for aquariums.

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Take into account the Weather and the Time of Day.

Photographing at different times of the day, such as early or late in the morning, can produce more beautiful light. You are also limited by the hours of daylight and darkness, which is a major drawback to landscape photography. Avoid direct sunlight if you are stuck taking photos in the sun. Exhibits that have good tree cover will not pose a problem with the overhead lighting. It is important to remember that the bright sunlight reflecting off fences and bars can make it difficult to photograph.

The best days to visit the zoo are those with heavy clouds. Heavy cloud cover means that you won’t have to deal with high-contrast, harsh light. Crowds will also be lighter when there is heavy cloud cover. Cloudy, overcast days can bring cooler temperatures. Animals are more active when temperatures drop.

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Look for Gesture

It can be difficult to get a portrait of an animal when you first start photographing zoo animals. It is difficult to find animals that are well-lit, have a good angle, and are not in any way in danger of being in a cage. Finding a way to photograph them through bars or glass is also difficult. Once you have taken the “portrait” images of your animal, you can start to work on images that display good gesture. Gesture doesn’t just include movement, although movement is wonderful. It also includes the correct head tilt, body positioning, and wings. Anything that adds to an image beyond a close-up shot of an animal’s facial features. You can start to capture gesture by visiting free flying bird exhibits. Patience is the key to gesture. Wait until you find the right position for your animal to take a great photograph.

When the temperature is cooler, animals are more active. You will see animals asleep in the sun at midday on a sunny 90 degree day. If it is cloudy and warm, the animals will be more active. Photographing active animals on warmer winter days is possible by using warmer lighting. Everyone will be enjoying the relative warmth of 50 degrees on a cold day. Active animals are more likely to offer interesting gestures and activity for you to photograph.

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Flexibility is key

It is important to be flexible about which animals you want to photograph in order to make good photos at home. A monkey, playing happily, will be walking by you. It would make a great image if it was not positioned against its cage bars. The harsh light and extreme dynamic range will ruin a good shot as the lion will sleep in both sunlight and shadow. If it weren’t for the bright red fence in background, the elephant would look perfect. The penguins are very active, playing in front of brightly painted murals and fake rocks.

You’ll eventually find the animals that line up perfectly to create a great photo. If you arrive determined to capture the perfect photo of an elephant, monkey, lion or penguin, you will be disappointed. There are certain enclosures in most zoos that won’t lend themselves to good zoo photographs. You might consider moving to another zoo if you are really interested in photographing the animal. There will be some enclosures at zoos that are more difficult to photograph than others. If this is the case and you are desperate to photograph the animal, you can wait for all the right elements to align to create a great image.

The best way to approach photography at a zoo is to be flexible. Instead of trying to take photos of every animal, make it your goal to bring home a few. You will learn to be flexible and you’ll soon find that you can quickly pass the animals that aren’t making good photos. Instead, you should spend your time in the areas that have all the elements that make for a great image.

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Think beyond the animals

In this article, I assumed that the aim of photographing animals in zoos is to capture natural-looking images. This is not the only way to photograph an zoo. There are many interesting people in zoos, so it is worth focusing your lens on them. This can make for unique and interesting images. Instead of trying to capture animals looking wild, you might want to document their lives in captivity. Many zoos feature interesting plants and foliage or interesting objects and exhibits that make great photographs. While photographing at the zoo, it would be a great self-assignment to photograph detail shots, textures or abstract images.

I took a year off to challenge myself to take photos at zoos with only the Fujix100 series camera and its built-in 23mm lens. Although this is not how I normally approach zoo photography it forced me to see past images that I would normally make and those that required a telescope lens. It also allowed me to discover completely new images.

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No matter what your subject or style is, you should visit your local zoo to see if there are any unique photos you can take this summer. Let me know what you think. Are you a zoo photographer? Or do you avoid it because it is too cliché? Please leave your comments with your thoughts!