I love zoos. I’m probably not supposed to, due to the evils of keeping animals captive and all. But as a major animal lover and a photographer, I just love going to the zoo and taking pictures of animals that I will most likely never see in the wild. Following are a few tips for zoo photography:
- First of all, as a photographer, don’t plan to profit from any photos you take at a zoo. At least the San Diego Zoo and the Denver Zoo have rules against selling photos of their animals. I’m sure that’s the case with most zoos. So know that you’re just doing it for fun.
- The earlier you can get to the zoo, the better. The early morning light makes for much better photos than mid-day light, which tends to be harsh and glaring. The drawback of getting there early is that sometimes the animals don’t get out and moving until later in the morning. Late afternoon light is good too if they don’t kick you out before then.
- Get a map when you go in and plan out which animals you most want to photograph. I typically make at least two or three passes by my favorite exhibits to catch the animals in different light and/or in different activities.
- Be patient. Spend a lot of time in front of any given exhibit. Your photos will be much more interesting if you can catch the animals DOING something – yawning, playing, roaring, eating, stretching, etc. Sometimes you have to wait a while for that to happen.
- Use a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod, try to brace your arms or elbows on a railing or whatever is available.
- Be mindful of your backgrounds. Even though you’re at a zoo, you want your photos to seem as natural as possible. A blue plastic bucket, a big red ball, a chain link fence or people in the background will distract from the animal subjects.
- Take a photo of the sign that tells all about the animal you’re looking at. You’ll be glad you did later when you’re looking at your pictures and can’t remember the name of the gerenuk or the mishmi takin.
- Go alone or with other photographers. Most people who aren’t photographers or Jeff Corwin won’t want to spend 45 minutes watching the spotted hyenas. And don’t feel compelled to take a child with you just for show. It’s ok for an adult to want to go to the zoo.
- Get as close as possible. Usually this means using a zoom lens. I shoot almost exclusively with my 70-300mm lens when I’m at the zoo. I’d use a longer lens if I had one. (Hint hint).
I finally had the chance in June of last year to visit the San Diego Zoo for the first time in… maybe 25 years? Wow, that is such a great zoo. Photographing the pandas was my primary objective and during my full day at the zoo, I managed to swing by the panda exhibit THREE times. The first time was the best because I made a beeline for the panda exhibit as soon as I made it through the gates and I was just about the first one there, so I was able to spend a good amount of time just hanging out, watching and taking pictures. The other two times, I actually had to wait in line to see the pandas, and once inside, the zoo lady in charge of the panda exhibit made everyone keep moving along. Not really an ideal situation for getting good photos. But… there were a lot of people waiting in line, so it was understandable.