The last thing I did before leaving San Diego was spend some time at the zoo. Yes, it’s true, I actually paid the $37 to get in but it was such a beautiful day and I had so much time to kill that I figured it would be money well spent, and it was. I saw all of the great exhibits that the park is famous for and enjoyed the beautiful sites and sounds of nature.
There is one thing that you’ll see more of at the zoo than animals is cameras. And it also seems that every time I visit a zoo, I see more and more DSLR’s. With that in mind, I thought I would share some tips for getting better shots at the zoo.
1. To really get the type of intimate images that focuses on the animal and not the environment, you will want a long lens. The longer the better. I have three lenses that I use for zoo close-ups, a 70-200mm, 70-300mm, and 80-400mm. Many zoo enclosures are designed to keep some distance between you and the animals. A long lens will help cut the distance and get you close again.
2. If you are going to use a long lens, you might want to consider using a monopod as well. Tripods can be cumbersome when getting through the crowds at a zoo. The monopod option is easy to transport and still gives the measure of stability you sometimes need when working with long focal lengths.
3. Move close to the enclosure. Whether it’s a wire mesh or bars, you are bound to get a better shot by moving your camera as close as possible to the obstruction. The closer the fence is to the lens, the greater chance that it will be blurred so far out of focus that you won’t see it in the image.
4. Another way to help blur those obstructions is to shoot as wide open as possible. This really serves two purposes. First for the reason just mentioned, large apertures help blur objects close to the lens. The second reason is to work with a very shallow depth of field. This will help put the emphasis on the animals and off of the possibly distracting backgrounds.
5. Try visiting on an overcast day. If that isn’t possible, try to work in the shadows if at all possible. The truth is that many zoo environments contain open-air enclosures for the animals and are often in full-sun, which creates harsh shadows and very contrasty scenes. Cloudy, overcast days, or shaded locations will provide more saturated colors, better details, and a better overall image.
6. Finally, be patient. Find a good vantage point and don’t settle for whatever shot you can get. Animals in captivity will move about their enclosures sooner or later and your patience will pay off in the end. I have seen some photographers who have camped out for hours at the same enclosure just to get the perfect shot. I’m not suggesting that but you should plan on spending some time to get good shots. If an animal isn’t out where you can get a good picture, try swinging back later to see if the situation has changed. I am betting that your persistance will pay off for you in the end.