Zoo photography tips

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 the day.

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.

Visit your favourite animals first.

Visit your favourite animals early in the day before the zoo gets too busy. This will help you to get the shots you really want.

Some animals will naturally be more active at certain times, such as early in the morning or feeding time. Check the zoo’s timings to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity.

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. Remember, it is best to avoid swapping lenses too often as this can introduce dust into your camera.

Use aperture-priority.

Most of the time I use my camera’s aperture-priority mode, setting it between f/2.8 and f/5.6. This allows me to blur the background as much as possible, separating the animal from its surroundings. Keeping the aperture wide open also allows me to capture as much light as possible in the zoo’s darker areas.

Sometimes it might be necessary to select shutter-priority or manual mode if the animal is moving fast (such as a running animal)

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.

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.

Use your camera’s burst mode.

Your cameras burst mode will allow you to take several photographs in quick succession whilst you hold 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-capacity memory cards to store all those image files!

You might find burst mode works better if you turn off RAW mode, and capture JPEG files instead. Also remember that some memory cards work faster than others, and this can affect how many photos you can take in burst mode before your camera starts to stutter.

Make use of your telephoto lens.

A standard lens is fine for landscapes or when you can get close to the subject you are shooting. However, a telephoto lens is usually a better option in zoos as it will allow you to zoom in close to the animals. 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 larger animals or animals you can get closer to.

Pick the best time to visit.

Harsh, bright sunlight is not desirable for a day of outdoor zoo photography. You are likely to get better results on cloudy days when the clouds act as a natural diffuser for the sunlight.

If you do happen to visit on a sunny day, you coul try to make use of the ‘golden hour’. This 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 of 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).

If you do happen to be shooting on a bright day then you might be better pictures photographing animals which are in the shade.

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.

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.

Don’t use flash.

Even if the zoo allows you to use a flash (most don’t), you risk startling the animals, upsetting other visitors, and could introduce glare or reflections into your images. Direct flash use also tends to produce unflattering light. It is worth accepting that the low amount of light in some areas of the zoo will limit your ability to take some photographs.

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