Where is wildlife considered to be “not so wildlife”? In a zoo, of course.
Here are some tips and ideas about shooting in a zoo that may be some help should you find yourself at one during your next vacation.
I made the photos accompanying this column at the internationally-renowned Frankfurt Zoo this past summer.
Zoos and game farms provide a wide variety of subjects in different settings, frequently with difficult lighting and with different levels of shyness.
They are often some distance from you at one display and up very close at the next, so having a variety of lenses handy is useful, including a macro for some displays.
(Zooms are helpful if you have a good one.)
Some animal displays are surrounded by glass or wire cages that create difficulties in photographing the animal without getting reflections in the glass or interference from the wire.
Chain-link fence can be particularly disturbing if it is in the photo. Get in close to the fence. Use a long focal length lens and a wide aperture to blur the wire.
Glass enclosures call for taking the time to ensure you are not getting unwanted reflections or flare from lights.
Consider what attracts you to the animal you are photographing. Is it the size, the shape, its colouring or something else?
Doing this helps you to take the time to create an interesting image rather than just a snapshot.
Get down to the level of the subject you are photographing. This gives a different view than the standard shot from a standing position.
Make sure you have a tripod or monopod for those shots that will have to be taken in lower light.
Animals anywhere, zoos included, don’t stay still for long, so you have to be ready to make the image when the lighting, position and surroundings are just right.
Always set your shutter speed as fast as you can and still get the shot because the animal will likely move just as you release the shutter and you want to stop the motion.
A digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera capable of higher ISO settings (sensor sensitivity) will help maintain a higher shutter speed.
You may even want to set your camera to continuous shooting mode and take several consecutive images.
Be patient. Wait for the moment of beauty… or humour. Most animals will provide one or the other.
If there is a particular species you want to capture, plan your day so there is enough time to persevere and wait for that perfect shot.
One of the great things about zoo photography is that you can get nearer to these wonders of nature than you ever would in the wild. However, this causes some difficulty in choosing what all you want to include within the frame.
Zoos are not a natural setting for the animals, so you might want to move around your subject in an attempt to include some vegetation or other surrounding instead of a barn.
However, most times you will want to isolate the creature itself.
When you want to get in close, use a telephoto lens (200mm to 300mm or more) to bring your subject in and fill your frame.
Create a close-up of the face or body to create an intimate feel to the image as well as eliminating any distractions that may be in the background.
When framing close, focus on the eyes. Just as with people, the eyes are the “window to the soul” of the being you are capturing.
Wide apertures will help isolate the subject from the background where you simply cannot get a shot that doesn’t include distracting elements.
Post processing with your photo editor – Paint Shop Pro, Photoshop, Gimp, etc. – can be invaluable in eliminating these off-putting elements.
Last, but certainly not least, is the one fascinating animal that is present at all zoos and game farms: the people.
Keep an eye open for interesting individuals as well as fun images of the way people interact with the animals in the enclosures.
Children are wonderful to be with as they encounter the “not so wildlife” in the zoos.
Happy shooting and remember to leave the environment as you found it.