How to photograph zoos

How to photograph zoos - monkey on branchAll aspiring wildlife photographers would agree that there’s no substitute for shooting in your subject’s natural environment. But in the case of the more exotic mammals, such as the big cats, that means a long and very expensive trip to a distant country.

The cost of such ventures is beyond the reach of most people but it’s surprising just what kind of results you can get by visiting your local zoo.

Sceptical? Then just look at this beautiful image by Monique Bogaerts, taken at a zoo in Belgium.

No specialist equipment or technique was used, just a digital SLR with a long zoom lens, and lots of patience, followed by some careful post-production work in Photoshop.

How to photograph zoos: What you will need

Long telephoto lens

To crop in close on your subjects and exclude as much of the giveaway surroundings as possible, you’ll need a lens with a focal length that goes up to a 35mm equivalent of at least 300mm (so around 200mm with most DLSRs).

A zoom lens offers the most flexibility, enabling you to pull back if the animals move closer to you. The time taken to switch to a wider lens could cost you the shot.

Photoshop or similar

You’ll probably need to do a bit of work on your best shots to remove any giveaway intrusions in the background, or to burn them in so they don’t show up. Almost every basic image-editing program provides the tools required.

Five top tips on how to photograph zoos

1. Forward Planning

A rainy day is not a good time to visit the zoo. Most of the more sensible animals take shelter, with the result that pictures are either not possible or – if they are – their surroundings are anything but naturalistic.

So check the weather forecast beforehand. in the UK the BBC website is a good place to visit (www.bbc.co.uk/weather). You should also contact the zoo to check that all exhibits are open and find out if there are any restrictions on photography.

2. Camera settings

The aim when choosing an exposure combination is to achieve a shallow depth of field. This will concentrate attention on the animal, and by blurring the background will also disguise any evidence that the picture was taken in a zoo.

Selecting a wide aperture also has the benefit of producing a high shutter speed, reducing the risk of camera shake which is greater with big telephoto lenses.

how to photograph zoos3. Finding a viewpoint

In most zoo environments you’re unlikely to be able to get a clear uninterrupted view of your subject, without bars, glass or other barriers, especially in the case of carnivores like the big cats.

Glass is less a problem than bars if you get right up to the glass to eliminate any reflections. Resting the lens hood on the glass also provides some support and reduces camera shake.

It goes without saying that flash should be avoided. Apart from the aesthetic considerations, and the comfort of the animal, it would simply flare off the glass anyway.

zoo photography leopard 4. Getting the shots

Another important consideration when choosing a viewpoint is what’s in the background.

In the case of the big cat enclosures such as at London Zoo, which you can walk around, the problem is avoiding fellow visitors gawping in from the opposite side. You may also encounter brick or concrete walls, and man-made features such as climbing/viewing platforms.

Walk around to find a position that provides the best view of the animal with the clearest background. Zoom in for a tight crop and take plenty of shots to be sure of getting a good expression.

5. Under Cover

When the animals are in their covered areas your chances of getting good shots are greatly reduced.

Walls, straw bedding and ugly fluorescent lighting are just three of the problems that affected this shot of a Serval wild cat that I took at London Zoo.

Finding a good viewpoint, cropping tightly and waiting until the animal looked up from his state of semi-sleep were all that could be done in-camera.

Shooting in RAW mode makes it easier to remove any ugly colour casts later, or could you take a custom white balance reading from the scene if you prefer.

photographing zoos darken the image down6. Darken Down

As Monique Bogaerts did with her tiger portrait, you can enhance your zoo pictures by darkening down the surrounding areas in Photoshop, so that any unnatural details can be de-emphasised and the subject can be given greater prominence.

The easiest way to do this (and the method used here) is via the burn tool (which looks like a lollipop). Use this preferably on a duplicate layer to make it easier to correct any mistakes and so that the original image is not affected.

Take care when going around the edges of the animal – a small, soft-edged tool setting is best.

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