Going to the zoo to photograph is always a lot of fun. In this article, you can read 27 tips for better pictures at your next zoo visit. Going to the zoo is also a good possibility to combine a day of photography and family.
Unlike to wild animals the animals in zoos are owned by someone. You can be sued by the zoo. If you want to use your photos commercially the zoos need to give you a property release. Most zoos will give you the release but you have to ask them.
Personally, I think the best weather for photographing in the zoo is a bright overcast day. You do not have to fight with a lot of contrasts as when you are there on a sunny day. Check if there is rain and if you could go inside if it rains. You do not want to ruin your gear or get soaked.
3 Do not annoy somebody
Keep in mind that as a photographer you need more space than a normal visitor. Especially when you go on weekends it can get really crowded in the zoo. You may have a long lens, and a big backpack. So do not hit anybody with your gear. Take care of children running around.
If you go with your family keep in mind that not everybody is interested in looking on the same animal for hours.
4 All you have
Most zoos have a wide variety of shooting conditions. Sometimes the animals are close, sometimes far away. You could have low light situations and bright light. So, you may have to take a bigger bag and bring a lot of glass and gear.
If you bring a lot of gear you should consider bringing a cart to the zoo. Some zoos provide them for rent. If you bring your own, check if they are allowed in the zoo. Carts can be really handy if you bring a lot of gear. You do not have to have it on your back the whole time. It can be also nice if you have children and they can have a ride for a while.
6 Perfect Gear Test Area
Because you have so many conditions and motives zoos are a perfect test area for your gear. This is great if you have new gear. You can test your cameras and lenses in different conditions like light situations or distance to your motive. After a day caring a new backpack you will know if it was a good investment. Also if you want to test a rental lens a zoo is a very good test area.
7 Long Lens
The closer you are the better you pictures get. This does not have to be true in every case but this rule of thumb will work in a lot of situations. Animals in the zoo are sometimes far away so bring a long lens. If you are interested in buying one consider the Tamron 150-600, the Sigma 150-600 or check the Lens Finder.
8 Circular Polarizing Filter
If there is a lot of glass in the zoo, you may should bring a circular polarization filter. This can help to reduce reflections and you can make better pictures.
Big lenses can become really heavy if you carry them a whole day in your hands. If you have a long lens, consider to bring a monopod or a tripod. A monopod can be handier because you have more freedom to move around and you do not need so much space. You can also have longer exposure times with a monopod.
Drones can give you a completely new perspective on animals. Also the zoo buildings can be interesting from a bird’s eye perspective. If you want to take drone pictures keep in mind that you can shock or irritate the animals. Also keep in mind that there can be a lot of people on the ways in the zoo. You may have to get permission from the zoo if you want to fly your drone there.
11 Do not leave gear unattended
You should never leave you gear unattended in the zoo. Most time there is a lot going on and it is easy for a thief to grab something and hide in the crowd. But it does have not to be someone with bad purposes that can ruin your day. Children who run around or climb on things can also ruin your gear.
If you are going a whole day in the zoo bring something to eat and drink. You can buy things in the zoo but often not in every corner. Especially if you are with your family you do not want to have crying kids and go home early.
13 Shooting through fences
You have to shoot sometimes through a fence. Some zoos have holes in the fence for photographers. If you cannot find any try if the lens fits through the fence. If the lens does not fit through the fence go as close as possible to the fence and open up the aperture.
Keep always in mind that the animals can be dangerous. It may be not the best idea to go close to the fence when there is a tiger on the other side. There are also some animals that pee on visitors or throw excrement. You may have a problem when your lens got stuck in a fence.
14 Know your Camera
A zoo is the perfect place to learn something about your camera. Try different modes like aperture priority, shutter priority or manual mode. You can try all the camera modes in different conditions. Going to the zoo is good to learn shooting in manual mode because you can take your time and find the right settings. Most of the animals will not hide like in the wild.
15 Play with Autofocus Modes
Try out different autofocus modes in different situations. Some are better for moving objects some are better for still objects. Check your camera manual which one is the right one and try it. You may also can try to make some pictures with manual focus.
16 Play with Aperture and Exposure
Play with the aperture and the exposure. Try what the maximum exposure time is to make a sharp image (or check this article). Try also to capture motion of moving animals.
17 Review Pictures
Make a stop from time to time and check your pictures if they are sharp and properly exposed or need some other improvement. This is even more important when you shoot with settings that you are not used to use.
18 Blurry Pictures
If your pictures are blurry try different things to reduce the camera shake. A rule of thumb is that the shutter speed should not be longer than you focal length. This means 1/600s for a 600mm lens on a full frame camera. You can expand the exposure time by using a mono- or tripod or laying the camera on something.
19 Bring yourself in an uncomfortable situation
This does not mean you have to jump in a lion cage. Just try to make pictures with settings you have never used before. Shoot at 600mm with a shutter speed of 1/100 free hand and try to make a sharp picture. In zoos, there are so many motives, so you do not have to worry to miss something special.
20 Take your time
Take the time you need to make you pictures. Most time you can wait a bit and watch if the animal moves or make something interesting. Most of the people only take a quick look to see the animal. With a bit of time you can show an interesting moment.
Ok this is an obvious one. You go to a zoo to see animals. But think first before you take the picture. How do you want to show the animal? Maybe you want to show it like it is in the wild so keep fences or unnatural things out of your picture and especially the background.
22 Eye height
If you can take a picture on its eye height of the animal. This can mean that you have to knee down or stand on something. Most people see the animal from a human eye height and also photograph them from there. If you have a different angle your pictures stand out.
23 Close ups
Zoos are perfect for animal close ups. In the wild you have to get really close to animals which could be dangerous. In a zoo, there is always a fence or glass between you and the animal.
A lot of animals does have beautiful patterns. Just thing of a zebra or a giraffe pattern. Showing only the patterns of an animal fur can give you beautiful pics.
If you go with your family this is also a great motive to photograph. Photograph your children watching animals. If you give them a bit of time to observe animals they will forget you and you can make beautiful pictures.
26 Street Photography
This is not so obvious especially if think you go to the zoo to watch and photograph animals, but a zoo is also great for street photography. People are most time relaxed and do not think that they could be photographed by somebody. These are good conditions to make cool street pictures.
Some zoos especially older ones have beautiful buildings. A lot of zoos were built around the beginning of the 20th century. Some zoos especially in Europe have beautiful old buildings which are great motives. Also new buildings like big aviaries can be a great motive for photography.