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Have you always liked animals and dreamed of great wildlife photography? Well, you can just start practicing at your local zoo. There’s probably no place better to get closer to your favorite animals. In this blog, I discuss several topics to help you improve zoo photography.

How to prepare

There are several things you can do at home to prepare a day of zoo photography. First, take a look at the website of the zoo you’re planning to visit. The zoo’s often put an announcement on their website whenever baby animals are born or when new animals have taken place in the zoo. Some zoo’s even announce feeding time of certain animals and/or offer special shows. Second, time your visit to the zoo. Zoo animals, just like animals in the wild, have a certain rhythm and are most active during the morning and evening as well as during feeding time. Third, it just takes a little patience and planning to make great pictures of these interesting and beautiful creatures.

Mother and Chick looking for food
A Eurasian Crane and its chick looking for food.

What to use

Most animals are often far away in their stay, therefore, I always bring a telephoto lens (Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8). Anything starting from 70mm will do but larger focal lengths are an obvious choice. An additional advantage of a telephoto lens is that it allows for beautiful close-ups of the subject. A low diaphragm (preferably on the whole range) helps to create that beautiful animal portrait by adding nice bokeh. Prime lenses such as the popular 100mm macro lenses can be used for this purpose as well. Keep in mind, though, that a zoom lens is more convenient due to rapidly changing circumstances. Lastly, you may want to bring something to block unwanted reflections such as a polarizing filter.

Photographed this Desert Spiny Lizard through glass
Made eye contact with the lizard while he posed for me.

How to photograph through glass and fences

An obvious challenge of zoo photography is that most animals are in cages. No matter the size of the cage, glass or (mesh) fences separate us from the animals for obvious reasons. The difficulty with these necessary measures is that you probably end up with unwanted (parts of) fences in the foreground or reflections in your photo.

Bird behind the fence
Thick glass and fences are common challenges of zoo photography.

Ever noticed you have to lower your shutter speed or increase your ISO when shooting through the thick glass windows? Most likely the photos end up hazy as well. Sometimes it can be directly attributed to dirty glass but also consider the angle from which you’re taking your photos. The larger the angle, from the window to your lens, the thicker the glass. As a result, your camera sensor captures less light and sharpness is decreased. Therefore, try to shoot as perpendicular to the window as possible. A fat chance you notice less haziness in your photos as well as fewer reflections.

To further minimize the reflections it is important to block light coming from behind the camera. Thus try to photograph as close to the glass as possible. Make use of large surrounding structures you see in the reflections to block as much light hitting the glass as possible, even your own body can be used. I sometimes bring a dark-colored towel to cover the camera and lens to prevent reflections to appear. To completely get rid of unwanted reflections there are, of course, several tools out there to help you out, such as a flexible or rubber lens hood (e.g. a Lensskirt or Ultimate Lens Hood) or a polarizing filter. Keep in mind the latter is much more expensive and you have to buy and carry one for each lens.

Photographing close to the fence and thinking about the shooting angle already solves a large deal of the fence problem. Even through the smallest bars, you can take excellent photos. It is, however, important to use the right diaphragm. Lower the diaphragm to for example 4.0 to ensure a small focus area in your photo which makes it easier to make the fence disappear in the photo. Bars that are too close to each other may result in a certain haziness similar to vignetting but you can use this to your advantage by creating animal photos with a dreamy look.

The King of Vultures
Part of the fence blended perfectly with the unsharp background adding a dreamy feel to the photo.

How to photograph the animals

Similar to photographing people, if you can see the subject’s eyes it is most of the time a better picture. Make sure, however, that you capture expressive eyes to grab the viewers attention. Dull or blurry eyes and the viewer is going to look away. A great point to focus on is the catch light, the white spot that shows up in the eyes, which adds an extra spark and make the subject look alive. Furthermore, if you catch the animal looking right at you it helps create engagement between the viewer and the subject.

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A South African Yellow Mongoose on the lookout.

An important difference between photographing animals and people is that you can’t ask your subject to take a particular pose or look a certain way. So watch the animal and learn its behavior while you frame it the way you want and wait for interesting moments to take the picture.

Not only the subject is important but also the background. A smooth background makes your subject pop-out of the photo. A low diaphragm and enough distance between the subject and background will help you create amazing animal portraits.

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A screeching Red-tailed Hawk during a bird show.

It often can happen that it is too crowded in some parts of the zoo. Don’t give up just yet, visit quiet parts of the zoo first and decide to come back later. Besides you can use crowds for some interesting photography such as children in awe or long exposure photography of visitors watching animals in dark environments.

Long exposure of the visitors
Long exposure shot from all people coming and going to watch the sharks in one of many basins in Burgers Zoos’ Ocean.

Find out more

If you are more visually oriented (you’re a photographer, of course, you are!) and want to learn more, check out the video below. Recently, I’ve been featured by Romedia Films in one of his vlogs to share my tips & tricks for zoo photography.

If you enjoyed the video, please hit the like button and subscribe to see more interesting content about photography and videography! I must warn you, his vlogs are in Dutch so you might want to skip if you don’t understand the Dutch language.

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