Taking Pictures at the Zoo

No vacation is complete without spending an entire afternoon toddling around the nearest zoo, no matter its size, prestige or jail-like qualities.  The family is wrangled, the stroller fleet is assembled, the water bottles are filled, the sunscreen is applied and the patience is tested.  A zoo can provide a great mix of entertainment for the whole family, inspiring young minds to care and older visitors to donate.  Educational and exciting, zoos are also a fantastic place to bring a camera along.  With no time limit to the day, a photographer can spend as much or as little time examining each exhibit capturing the personalities of every animal.  Though there are some tough limitations and boundaries placed on zoo photography (such as fences, glass walls, nap times and weather), it is not impossible to capture memorable pictures.

The best way to start a successful day of photography at the zoo is to plan ahead.  Know where you are going, when it opens and what day you will be there.  It is best to go on a slow day, if possible.  Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursday are typically good days to expect fewer people.  There is nothing more annoying than seeing your potential shot of an orangutan family only to get shut out by a family of nine.  Pay attention to weather forecasts; sunny days are great but slightly overcast days are even better.  Incredibly bright light can ruin what could have been a great picture.  Do not plan a visit to the zoo at lunch time.  High noon is nap time in the animal kingdom.  Look at the zoo's website ahead of time; sometimes they list when certain animals will disappear for hours on end to recharge their batteries.  While you are at it, look to see if the zoo posts a schedule for feedings.  It is not too often you can take a picture of a lion wolfing down a small animal.  Take advantage of these opportunities.

It cannot be stressed enough that a camera and a zoom lens (if available) will suffice at the zoo.  Extra batteries, memory cards and a shoulder strap are all that is necessary.  There is no need for multiple cameras, extra flashes or cumbersome long-range lenses.  Do not be intimidated by the unique opportunity to photograph a cheetah in its (faux) natural habitat and feel it necessary to bring too much stuff.  Some zoos even discourage the use of tripods to limit time shutter happy individuals spend in prime locations.  If no one is around, by all means take your precious time, but be courteous to the other paying customers.  A bigger camera does not make you special.  (If you are going to do professional work at the zoo, disregard this paragraph.  Bring all the equipment you need.)   
Once you get to the zoo, grab a map and plan your course of action.  For instance, take all the outdoor photos at the same time, group together indoor exhibits and save long range shots to be taken together.  Switching back from one setting to the other can be time-consuming.  Do not be that person who misses a chimpanzee eating lice from its child because you were turning off your flash.  Planning your route can make the day go by smoothly and successfully.  

Outdoor shots are relatively simple regardless of the camera type.  With a compact or subcompact camera, turning it on will do the trick.  Most are automatically set to adjust to the surroundings.  You can choose between portrait, landscape, motion and nighttime settings.  The safest bet is to select a daytime setting with a sunlight or natural light option.  If the animal in question is in fact being active, feel free to switch to the motion setting.  Once you take a subcompact into a reptile house, it gets tricky.  The low light and the glass walls prevent a truly quality shot.  That is no one's fault.  The flash on a subcompact camera is so close to the lens that the glare is horrific bouncing off of glass.  And without a flash, your image just looks more like a still from a horror film.

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Shutter Speed: 1/80   f/stop: 6.3    (This reminds me of the wolf from "The NeverEnding Story".)

With a more advanced camera, such as a digital SLR, you can get lost in the settings.  Know your camera before you go.  When you are shooting outdoors without fences, cages or glass, the sky is the limit.  Make sure to have a fast shutter speed and a low f/stop or aperture.  Shutter speed affects the amount of time light is let in and is measured in increments of a second.  The longer the exposure, the more light is let in.

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Shutter Speed:1/800   f/stop: 6.3                           Shutter Speed:1/160     f/stop: 6.3

The aperture or f/stop dictates how much light is let through the sensor.  The lower the f/stop, the more vivid the color develops.  Try to find a happy medium between these two images, both of which are intentionally horrible.

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Shutter Speed: 1/200   f/stop: 7.1                   Shutter Speed: 1/500  f/stop: 16

Finding a happy medium between the aperture setting and the shutter speed can produce some really quality images.

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Shutter Speed: 1/400  f/stop: 6.3

Focus is your friend.  The focus can help you single out a specific feature in a picture.  It can tell a story.  On a digital SLR camera such as a Canon Rebel XTi, there is an option to have a full field of focus, automatic focus or manual focus.  In order to capture the best elements framed for a picture, use the manual focus.  Cycle around in the focus frame until you find a marker that works.  For example, in the image below on the left, the focus is on the single meerkat.  The emphasis is on the watchdog quality of the meerkat species.  But in the image on the right, the focus is on the two meerkats grooming each other.  It showcases the nurturing, playful qualities of the meerkats.  While both images are clear and crisp, they show the animal in different ways.  Keep this technique in mind during your whole zoo visit.  It comes in handy when you are lucky enough to get extremely close to the animal.  During colder months, some zoos install heated floors for the animals to lounge on that are conveniently nestled against the viewing window.  The manual focus will allow you to handcraft a one of a kind image. 

left meerket.jpg

Focal Point in the Rear of the Shot

right meerkat.jpg

Focal Point in the Forefront

Setting up a shot is most important when taking a picture, no matter where the location.  Since you have paid to stay the entire day at the zoo, do not worry about taking a quick snap shot.  Stick around at one exhibit and wait for the picture to pose itself.  You obviously cannot direct a family of giraffes to look the same direction at varying heights with the same somber expression on their face.  Keep the camera ready.  While the animal is out of position and taking his time to walk into the frame, take a moment to get the settings on your camera in order.  As I said before, focus is your friend, but tests shots are your best friend.  Taking a great picture with a blasted ISO can ruin your mood.  Test your patience and wait for the moment to unfold.  This is a good time to tell you that taking pictures at the zoo is best done alone if at all possible.  Leave the family in the hotel.  

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Shutter Speed: 1/1600  f/stop: 6.3

Remember is that a trip to the zoo is not all about the animals.  Zoos are a wonderful place to test out a number of photographic techniques.  At the Honolulu Zoo, they have a beautiful indigenous plant life garden that affords a photographer a chance to show-off their macro skills.  The natural surroundings should not be ignored either.  When possible, incorporate the local scenery.  It will make the animals less like they are in the zoo and more like they are in their natural, wild element.  When that is not possible, like when you are visiting a city or at a cement enclosure, focus on the animal; key in on tiny details, such as the hairs in the nostril or the insects in their ear.

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Shutter Speed: 1/2000  f/stop: 6.3

Most importantly, enjoy the zoo.  Get to know the animals.  Do not scare them or try to elicit a reaction by being obnoxious.  Again, a bigger camera does not make you special.  A trip to the zoo is a superb time to hone in on a particular technique you have been meaning to master.  And if you do not get the shot the first time around, take a break, visit other animals, grab a $5 bottle of water and come back.  The animals certainly are not going to walk off.  Do not sweat the small things.  So many muddled details will be forgiven as long as you capture a great shot of a beautiful animal. 


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Maggie OBriant
Maggie O'Briant  Personal Blog Flickr

Maggie O'Briant recently graduated from Florida State University with an English Literature degree.  She is currently a freelance writer and photographer.    She currently lives in Hawaii with her husband and giant baby. 

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