"For photographing exotic animals in a nice safe environment, zoo photography is the way to go. It is much cheaper than a safari and you do not have to worry about becoming prey."
The size of the zoo will often determine the size of each individual habitat. Not to worry, even if the habitats are small, it is still possible to get some great photographs without the appearance of the human factors such as false structures or fencing.
My Trip to the Zoo
Last week I went on a field trip with my son’s second grade class. It was a guided tour so we did not have much time at each exhibit. Knowing this I had to decide on a general setting for my SLR.
If you are going through the zoo at your own leisure, I recommend bringing a tripod and using a flash when necessary. I shot using natural lighting and adjusted for exposure when necessary, but I ran into problems with shadows on many of the animals. A flash will help to bring out some of the characteristics that may be hidden in those shadows.
I decided to shoot manual at fairly high speed (1/1600 and above) just in case we ran into some fast moving animals. I also chose manual control so I could quickly change exposures by a step or two without changing my
depth of field.
This brings me to why a narrow depth of field was desired.
Photographing Through the Fence
The zoo that we went to was fairly small so many of the animals were kept in very large cages. The size of the animal determined what kind of cage was used. The cages varied from chain link fencing, chicken wire, bars, and everything in between.
The problem was that the openings in these cages were often smaller that my lens. To get around this I shot in as a narrow depth of field as possible. This caused the foreground where the fence was to go extremely out of focus, while keeping the subject in focus. (I feel that this is the most valuable zoo photography tip)
In the picture with the Komodo dragon, the slight haze in the top left is the fencing that was between me and the dragon. It can still be slightly seen but it is not enough to distract from the scene.
Note: The closer the subject is to the fencing, the more apparent the fencing will appear.
Don’t Forget the Train Ride
Most zoos offer a train ride that will observers through the larger more natural habitats. I was using a telephoto lens all day but this is where it is definitely necessary. This is also where you will get some of the better shots.
If you have not been on the train ride before, go on it once just to map out the shots that you want. The problem here is that the train is moving so you may not have much time to take that perfect picture, so be on your toes.
The chimp at the top and this turtle below were both photographed from the train.
I also recommend photographing at faster speeds here since the train is moving. The slightest jostle at the wrong time can cause blur.
Check with the zoo keepers to find out when certain animals are most active.
Also find out when the feeding times are for the larger cats, this often makes for some nice action shots.
I hope these zoo photography tips will help make your next trip to the zoo more memorable.
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