Tips for zoo photography

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After visiting a few zoos recently I thought I would share some of my thoughts and suggestions on how to help make the most of a day taking photographs of animals.

1. Check the zoo’s photography policy.

Most zoos are happy for visitors to take photographs for personal or domestic use, but many will require you to obtain written permission if you are intending to use the images commercially. Check the zoo’s policy before you go.

2. Make a short list of favourite animals.

Visit your favourite animals early in the day to ensure you have enough time to get the shots you want (and hopefully before the zoo gets too busy).

3. Decide what type of shots you want to get.

Do you want shots of groups of animals, individuals, close-up shots of just their heads, or maybe just their eyes? Or do you want a mixture of photographs at different focal lengths? Decide what you want to achieve before you go and then come up with a plan.

If you decide to use multiple lenses on your visit (and assuming the zoo isn’t too large), you might decide to do several circuits of the park using a different lens each time. This will reduce the need to keep swapping lenses.

4. Set up your camera.

I prefer manual mode at the zoo as it allows me to set a wide aperture (in order to blur the background), and then adjust the shutter speed up for fast moving animals and down if there isn’t much light available. I leave ISO on auto and just keep an eye that it doesn’t creep up too high (which would introduce too much noise).

If you’re not confident with manual mode then use aperture mode (A) between f1.4 and f5.6, and just swap to shutter mode (S) for any fast moving animals (try between 1/300 and 1/1000). Again, leave ISO on auto, and always try to focus on the animal’s eyes.

I have my camera set up to display a 3 x 3 grid in my viewfinder to help with composition. You’ll probably want to crop some images later, so make sure your camera is set to take images at the highest resolution available. Shoot in RAW mode if you intend to edit your pictures on computer later.

5. Move anti-clockwise around the zoo.

There is some evidence to suggest that most people move through parks and attractions in a clockwise direction. You might find it quieter if you do the opposite.

6. Use your camera’s burst mode.

Burst mode will take several photographs in quick succession as long as you are holding down the shutter release button. This is great for twitchy, unpredictable animals as it increases the chance of getting a perfectly timed shot. Just make sure you have plenty of large, empty memory cards to store all those image files! You might find burst mode works better or for longer if you turn off RAW mode, but obviously you’ll only capture JPEG files. Remember that some memory cards work faster than others, and this can affect how many photos you can take in burst mode before it starts to slow down.

7. Make use of your telephoto lens.

A standard lens is fine for landscapes or when you can get close to the subject, but not ideal for animals which might be a distance away. A telephoto lens will magnify the subject, allowing you to capture much more detail.

If you don’t have a telephoto lens then you could decide to concentrate your photography on animals you can get closer to.

8. Use the ‘golden hour’ if you can.

The ‘golden hour’ is a time just after sunrise and just before sunset when the sun is low in the sky and produces a soft yellow light which is flattering for most types subjects. Make the most of this time of the day by arriving early and staying late (in the UK this is usually only possible in the winter – in the summer the sun is already too high by the time most zoos open).

9. Have patience.

Getting the most interesting shots might require some patience. As many photographers have said: it is better to have a few great shots than to have many mediocre ones.

10. Be quiet.

Even though most zoo animals are accustomed to the bustle of human visitors, they might still shy away from loud noises and sudden movements. If you are quiet and slow, inquisitive and curious animals might be more likely to approach you.

11. Be careful using flash.

Even if the zoo allows you to use a flash, you risk startling the animals, upsetting other visitors, and could introduce glare or reflections into your images. If you must use a flash, don’t point it directly at glass screens. Make sure you know how to use your flash properly before you go, rather than experiment whilst you’re there.

12. Put your camera away.

Put your camera away from time to time and spend a moment watching the animals with your own eyes. Don’t forget that the zoo experience is about more than taking photographs.

13. Don’t worry if your shots aren’t perfect.

Don’t feel too disheartened if you miss some shots or are dissatisfied with the result of some of the images you have taken. No shot is wasted if you have learned something new or gained from the experience.