How to Take Great Photos at the Zoo
When we look at great photographs of animals we imagine the romantic
life of the professional photographer traveling to faraway places,
living an exotic life, and enjoying all manner of adventures.
It's true that a lot of great animal
photographs are taken in the wild, but the fact is that many of the
greatest animal pictures are taken at the zoo! Any pro who does a lot
of animal photography will tell you that some of their best "wild
animal" pictures were taken at the zoo.
There are several reasons why pros like working at zoos, and these reasons are just as valid for amateurs:
Cost and Convenience
But cost and convenience aren't even the best reasons.The truth is that
zoo animals are often better photographic subjects since they live more
pampered lives than their brethren in the wilds. Many animals in the
wild have nicks and scratches covering their ears and faces – injuries
from the rough-and-tumble life that comes from competing for food,
shelter, and mates. Not so in the zoo, where food and shelter and,
often, mates are readily provided to prevent Darwinian battles.
In the wild you can spend days or months to find the animal you want to
photograph...and once you spot the beast you're likely to take the
picture of the animal as it is – not necessarily as you would like it
to be. If it's up in a tree, that's where you're going to photograph
it. If it's sleeping in the brush, so be it. At the zoo you have more
possibilities to get the right "pose."
To find the animal you want, you simply follow
the printed signs. If the animal's pose is not exactly right, you can
wait a while...or go onto something else and then come back. You're not
in a take-it-or-leave-it situation!
When you photograph at the zoo, you have the luxury of waiting for the
right weather. If it's not perfect, you can easily come back when it's
better. In the next photo you can see how NYI student Wayne Angeloty
was able to get exactly the back-lighting he wanted, producing bright
furry outlines for these two "conversing" monkeys.
Getting close to animals in the wild can be dangerous, and many a
wildlife photographer has the scars to prove it. At the zoo you can
usually get close enough without any risk whatsoever.
Convinced? Okay. Let's review the key points that will help you get those great zoo photographs:
One Note of Warning
We see a lot of people taunting animals at the zoo
and ignoring signs that tell them not to feed the animals or toss objects
into cages. It goes without saying that photographers should respect these
rules, do nothing to irritate animals, and, perhaps, even take the lead
and speak up if there are people who are ignoring the rules. Remember, a
happy healthy animal is a great photo subject. Help keep zoo animals free
from human aggravation.
Now you're going to need the right equipment. There are two key pieces of equipment:
The first is a long zoom lens or a telephoto lens on your camera. The other is fast
(ISO 400 or higher) film. As you can see, what you need is not very exotic.
The long lens is important because it will enable you to make your subject
large in the photo and allow you to crop out distracting surroundings that
would detract from the subject or call attention to the "zoo" setting.
Do those benefits of the long lens sound familiar? They should. They're Guidelines Two
and Three of NYI's Three Guidelines for Better Photographs. Guideline Two tells you to
add emphasis to the subject of your photo – the long lens lets you do this by making your
subject big so it fills the frame. Guideline Three tells you to eliminate anything that
will distract from your subject – the long lens does this by narrowing the field of view
so very little clutter can be seen.
What about Guideline One? It tells you to know what you want to be the
subject of your picture before you click the shutter. In this case you
chose your subject for each photograph before you even lifted the
viewfinder to your eye. Your subject is the animal or animals you're
Guideline Three is particularly important when you shoot pictures of
animals in the zoo. After all, you are usually trying to create the
illusion of the animal in the wild. Anything in your picture that shouts
"ZOO" has to be eliminated. So try to avoid showing cage bars, zoo
visitors, or signs. For example, we think the this picture would have been
more effective if the fence weren't so obvious.
Why fast film? Because animals often move – and they can move pretty fast
in the zoo as well as the wild. You usually don't want to blur your
subject. With a fast film you will be able to shoot with a sufficiently
fast shutter speed to freeze the action. If you're using a digital camera,
consider increasing the camera's ISO setting to achieve a higher shutter speed.
Not long ago we got a call from a photographer lamenting that all the
images he shot on a recent trip to the zoo had come out blurred. Turns out
he had used very slow film along with a long lens that opened no wider
than f/4.5. The combination was death – it required long exposures that
resulted in camera shake and blurred motion. Why did he use such a slow
film, we asked? He explained that in a college photography course he once
took, his teacher had warned him against using fast film because it was
Well, he was years out of date. At NYI we tell our students not to worry
too much about grain. Because today's new film emulsions have dramatically
improved the fine grain quality of most films – even relatively fast
films, such as ISO 400 or even 800. Our advice to you: Unless you plan to
blow up your pictures to more than 11x14, don't worry about grain.
Here's a picture of a charging rhino taken by an NYI student at the Los
Angeles Zoo. It's awfully good. This rhino looks like he's charging out of
the Congo River, not a zoo moat. But the image is a bit soft. Would it
make the pages of National Geographic? Probably not because it's not 100%
Why is it soft? The photographer had no choice once he loaded his film. He
used ISO 50 slide film, which forced him to shoot at 1/30 of a second. At
this slow shutter speed the charging rhino is slightly blurred. Had he
used ISO 400 film, he could have shot at 1/250 of a second and frozen the
action. Then this picture would be worthy of the pages of National
Which brings us back to the question of how wide you can open your lens.
If you're using an SLR with a long lens that has a wide (f/2.8) aperture,
you can probably get away with slower film – perhaps ISO 100 or 200. As
we'll discuss shortly, the wide-open aperture also gives you the advantage
of being able to eliminate foreground and background clutter by using
selective focus. However, you usually don't have this luxury when you're
using a point-and-shoot camera with a zoom lens like a 35-115mm. When
you're zoomed out, your lens will offer a maximum aperture of f/8 or even
f/11. Forget selective focus. Forget a fast shutter speed. With a
zoomed-out point-and-shoot camera you need ISO 400 or faster film just to
avoid camera shake.
So much for equipment. Now, let's get to some specific shooting tips.
Go early. We like to be the first ones into the zoo. Most animals are
active in the morning and there usually aren't large groups of visitors
and school kids crowding around the animals.
Get in tight. Whether you're using a zoom lens or a telephoto, you'll find
the larger you can make the animal in the frame, the more impact your
photo will have. Almost all the pictures you see here fill the frame with
the face of the animal.
Use a tripod to get rock steady, knife-sharp images. Remember, a long lens
may force you to shoot with a slow shutter speed. Use a tripod to avoid
any possibility of camera shake.
To avoid clutter – change angle. Don't let the amusing
antics of your subject lull you into shooting against a bad background. Remember the
three NYI Guidelines. Remember you want to create the illusion of the
wild. If you can see anything in the viewfinder that distracts, eliminate
it. Chances are if you move just a few feet in either direction, it will
To avoid clutter – use selective focus. As we noted before, one of the
advantages of a wide aperture is that you can employ a narrow depth of
field to toss the background out of focus. This can be a real help in
creating the illusion of the wild – for example, let's say there's a
concrete background that's designed to look like real rocks. If the
background is sharp, it looks fake and you know the animal is in the zoo.
By using selective focus, you can throw the concrete "rocks" out of focus
and make them look more real. In this picture, you can see how NYI
student Guy Boily used selective focus to make the ocelot sharp while the
background becomes undefinable.
Pick your weather. Don't give up just because it's cloudy. You may be able
to get better shots on a cloudy day of animals against a background filled
with glare, like water or light-colored rocks. And if the weather's bad,
you'll probably be less concerned with crowds of visitors. In fact, when
the weather's downright "lousy," you may be able to get some great shots –
in rain or snow there will be almost no other visitors, and the inclement
weather can create a sense of nature that helps add to the "illusion" of
the wild. Of course, there's nothing wrong with sunny weather for these
pictures; just make sure the animals don't squint!
Flash for catch lights. Those small white dots in the eyes of people are
part of what give life to a portrait. Photographers call them "catch
lights." Those same catch lights give emphasis to the eyes of animals as
well. You can see them in this picture by NYI Student Terry Thomas.
Using a flash also helps photograph animals that are on display behind
glass, like the snake shown below. The trick is to avoid the reflection of
glare off the glass. To avoid this glare, shoot at an angle through the
glass instead of head on. Remember the old angle-of-incidence equals
angle-of-reflection rule. Make sure the reflection is thrown outside your
image – and your picture will be ruined.
Feeding time and other special times. The sea lions in Central Park know
when it's feeding time and they love to perform for their keepers and for
the appreciative audiences that gather three times a day. In many zoos
there are some animals, including new born babies, that are only on view
for a limited amount of time. Make sure you know the schedule for these
Expressions. Professional portrait photographers often cite the "E.S.P.
Rule." That means Expressions Sell Pictures. The same thing applies to zoo
animals. If the bear is sleeping, or just standing, or day dreaming, you
don't have as exciting a photo as you do if the bear is growling, yawning,
or otherwise active and expressing her character.
People aren't always in the way. There are times that the interaction of
humans with animals and vice versa tells a story in its own right. Don't
always avoid people in your photos. Sometimes they can add a depth and
dimension that adds to the picture – for example, as in this simple yet
deeply involving photo by NYI Student Wayne Angeloty taken in the
If you follow our tips and visit your local zoo frequently, you'll have a
lot of fun and take lots of great zoo photos!