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7 Tips for Photographing Animals at the Zoo

If a big cat safari in Kenya or tiger trek in India just isn’t on the cards this year, a trip to the zoo can still be a great way to hone your wildlife photography skills in a controlled environment.

Visiting the zoo with your camera is bound to be a learning experience, as you’ll have a chance to practice using different camera settings and lenses, experiment with shooting in tricky lighting and learn how to photograph quickly moving subjects.

So if you’re planning a photography trip to your local zoo, here are a few tips for getting quality shots.

1. Take your time

If you’re interested in wildlife photography, the first thing you’ll need to learn is patience. Wild animals are unpredictable and certainly won’t sit still and pose for you the way your family members or household pets might.

Although it will certainly be easier to get close-up shots of animals at the zoo than it would be in the wild, there will still be times when the animals you want to photograph are sleeping or sitting somewhere far off or sheltered from view. So if you want to get good shots, you have to be prepared to take your time at the different animal enclosures and wait for the right moment.

2. Visit early

If you want to avoid the crowds and enjoy that golden hour just after the sun rises, the best time to visit the zoo is first thing in the morning. Another benefit of visiting during this time is that many of the animals will be more active and are generally a lot easier to photograph earlier on in the day when they’re being fed or are out grazing.

3. Plan in advance

Most zoos are pretty big and keep a wide range of animals, so it’s best to research the zoo in advance and find out which animal enclosures you’re most interested in seeing, how close they are to each other and how much time you might need to spend at each one.

So for instance, you might decide that you’re most interested in photographing the tigers and gorillas, in which case you could spend an hour or more at these specific enclosures rather than five minutes at every animal enclosure at the zoo. This will give you a chance to really study the animals and wait for the perfect moment to take your photos.

4. Avoid distracting elements

Including fences, railings and other zoo visitors in your pictures will generally detract from the quality of your photographs, so look for ways to avoid these distracting elements. One of the easiest ways to do this is to change your angle, but if this isn’t possible you can also try to use a wider aperture which will help to blur the background and make it less distracting.

5. Bring a zoom lens and lens hood

If you want to get in as close as possible to the animals you’re hoping to photograph, a zoom lens with a focal length between 100mm and 300mm is your best option. Since the animals will be moving quickly and you’ll be using a faster shutter speed, you don’t necessarily need to bring a tripod, but a lens hood is always a good idea as it will block out harsh sunlight and prevent lens flare.

6. Never use the flash

In general, your camera’s built in flash won’t be of much use to you at the zoo because your subjects will usually be too far away, not to mention that the flash can be reflected by glass enclosures and produce unflattering glare. Aside from this, the flash may startle the animals, which makes it a big no-no whether at the zoo or in the wild.

7. Focus on the eyes

A general rule in portrait photography is that you should always focus on the eyes and this is important when photographing animals too. Keeping your subject’s eyes sharp will help the viewer to connect with the photograph and also ensure that the whole photograph appears clear and sharp.

Looking for more tips and advice on photographing wildlife? Check out our interview with renowned wildlife photographer and tour operator Paul Goldstein.