Seeing With New Eyes: Zoo Photo Tips
by | April 22nd, 2010

Have you ever wanted to capture better images of our fascinating zoo creatures?  But do the fences and glass keep getting in the way?  Well, fret no longer– there’s hope in that viewfinder.  As the former photographer for the Oakland Zoo, I discovered a few tricks over the years. Try using the following techniques  and you might find yourself capturing terrific tigers and awesome alligators yourself.

Caging Detracts From Photo

A. CAGE BARS (Bobcat, tiger, chimps, bats, aviaries, etc.)  One thing I’ve learned to do is to “un-cage the animals.” No, it doesn’t mean letting them run loose in the meadow, but rather using simple techniques to make the cage bars or fencing disappear from view.  Try to employ as many of these tips as you can to maximize the effect.  IMPORTANT: Auto-Focus needs to be shut off. Use manual focus or focus-lock to avoid focusing on the caging.

1.  Position the camera as close to the exhibit as safety and zoo rules permit.

2.  Wait until the animal is away from the caging.

Caging Has Vanished!

3.  Use a telephoto lens (or the telephoto setting on the camera.)

4.  Wait for a time when the bars are in shadow, and the animal is in the light.

5.  If your camera allows it, select the widest possible lens opening to limit the depth of field (or depth of focus.)

Reflections Ruin This Shot

B. GLASS (Alligators, anaconda, reptiles, bugs, etc.) With more zoo exhibits utilizing glass instead of bars these days, another important skill to learn is how to photograph through it without getting reflections in your pictures. It’s just a matter of paying more attention.

1. Make yourself aware of the reflections. It’s easy to miss them when you’re busy concentrating on your subject. Once you’ve done this:

2.  Reposition yourself relative to the light BEHIND you, until you’re no longer shooting through a reflection.

3.  If possible, place the lens directly against the glass. Use your hand to shield the side of the lens if you need to shoot at an angle to the glass.

Reflections Are Gone!

4.  Turn OFF the flash, unless you can shoot at an angle to the glass.

5.  If none of these suggestions are possible, wait until later in the day, when the light has changed.

C. MOVING ANIMALS Although many animals (such as lions) like to lie around and take it easy, it’s always frustrating when you’re trying to get a picture of an animal that just won’t sit still (like our gibbons frequently do.) Try these suggestions.

1.  Use a tripod to steady the camera.

2.  Use a wider lens (or zoom out) to make it easier to follow your subject.

3.  If your camera allows it, use a fast shutter speed to avoid blurring the image.

4. Animals moving left or right are more easily photographed than those moving toward or away from the camera, where drastic changes of focus are necessary.

5.  Gibbons and Vervet Monkeys can be especially difficult to follow. Try to notice if the animal has a pattern in its movement, such as a favorite rock or tree branch that it likes to pause at occasionally. By aiming your camera there in advance and waiting for it, you can often get better results than from trying to follow the animal from place to place.

The most important thing to keep in mind is: HAVE PATIENCE.  Some days, the photo opportunities make it easy, such as during an event like our popular Feast For The Beasts, coming up on July 17. But other days, things might be more challenging. Animals are often elusive and unpredictable. But any photo worth taking is worth waiting for. So good luck and see you at Gibbon Island!

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