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How to take great photos of animals in zoos and safari parks

By Edited Mar 3, 2016 0 2

Being wild, independent and unpredictable wild animals present many challenges to photographers. Many people are not fortunate enough to have large game animals, interesting primates, exotic reptiles and pretty birds on their door stop therefore there is little opportunity to photograph such animals without travelling half way around the world. This globetrotting will take both time and money, two commodities many people simply can’t afford. Fortunately, zoos and safari parks hold different species from around the world, and whilst it is better to see animals in their natural environment these enclosures offer animals food, exercise, the chance to breed and the opportunity to wander around without the threat of attack from predators.

Zoos and safari parks offer photographers a cheap and easy way of getting shots of many different types of mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians from all over the world without having to spend hours in the field stalking them. When you consider that creatures in zoos and safari parks are not afraid of humans, i.e. tame, and confined to their enclosures you would think that taking professional quality images of them should be simple right? In reality, this is not the case and there are many challenges the photographers have to overcome. 

A day out at the zoo and armed with my Canon EF70mm - 200mm F4L IS USM lens I managed to capture an image of this colourful African crane. The African crane is my favourite bird as it is so energetic and charismatic. This particular bird was hiding behind the foliage and momentarily stuck its head up to have a look around.

A head shot of a captive African Crane that is at Twycross Zoo in the UK

One of the largest challenges includes people, i.e. other visitors especially during peak periods, such as school and summer holidays. The general hustle and bustle of young children running around and angry parents shouting in an attempt to control them, inconsiderate people barging their way around and putting you and all your expensive equipment at risk is all part and parcel of taking pictures at public places. Despite this, it is still a major annoyance when trying to take professional quality photographs. Trying to get in the best position or location at each enclosure is possibly the largest annoyance, although with a bit of perseverance it is usually possible to get in the hot spot.

In these situations it is important to be patient and bide your time. Take some time out and wait a while and you will get to the hot spot eventually. Whilst you may be keen to get in there to bag the photographs you must remember that the other visitors have also paid their entrance fees and have just as much right to be there as you. Patience is a key characteristic although it appears to be something that many photographers don’t possess. Waiting can actually be beneficial as taking time to step back allows you to investigate the surroundings, look at the subject, assess the lighting, think about composition and what you have to do to increase the chances of you bagging the best shot. During waiting times you may also like to make sure the camera is set up correctly to get the best exposure for the conditions. Many photographers are too keen and in a rush to get furiously snapping away that vital checks are missed, which can affect the overall quality of the photographs.

You have to remember that your equipment is at risk of being banged or knocked in to by other visitors when taking photographs at zoos and safari parks therefore it is advisable to keep all accessories in a rucksack, securely strapped to your back. Obviously, the camera will be carried on a shoulder or neck strap so you don’t miss any candid or opportunity images, so it is important to keep a hand on the lens or camera body and shield the equipment with an arm.  

At zoos and safari parks all animals are fenced in. It doesn’t matter whether the animals are behind bars, a piece of wire mesh, a sheet of plastic or a sheet of perspex, these barricades and enclosures are a hurdle that all photographers face when taking pictures of animals.

When an animal is behind thin bars, or wire mesh, it is possible to take photographs that exclude the bars or mesh. It is possible for the camera to ignore the barriers even though they can be seen by the naked eye. Removing the bars is achieved by using a wide lens aperture, such as F5.6 or smaller. A small aperture reduces the depth of field, and providing the animal is a far enough distance behind the bars the animal will be sharp and the bars and background will be nicely blurred out. So, if for example, you are photographing a monkey if it is sat right up against the safety fence it will appear in the image. If the monkey is sitting, say 3 meters behind the safety fence, the bars or mesh will not be visible in the image.

Whilst a wide aperture will nicely blur out the background this effect is not always ideal, especially when a deep depth of field is required, i.e. the photographer requires front to back sharpness throughout the photo. In these circumstances a compromise will have to be made. When dealing with a shallow depth of field it is important that focusing is spot on to get the best image. The best thing to do is to focus on the eyes of the subject in order to get them as sharp as possible. Sharp eyes will bring the image to life, whereas soft and slightly out of focus eyes will not. Another trick is to try to ensure a catch light is captured in the subject’s eyes, since this also adds a bit of life to the photograph.

The Canon EF70mm - 200mm F4L IS USM lens is a great zoom lens for zoo photography. The focal length is perfect to capture  whole animal in its environment or for a frame filling close up. The image stabilisation technology ensures pin sharp images every time. The plastic hood is also useful for pressing up against glass and plastic tanks in order to reduce reflections.

The Canon EF70mm - 200mm

Holding tanks and Perspex sheeting provides a different challenge, and this is the reflections. When light bounces off the plastic it is likely to create reflections and these are likely to be picked up by the camera, which will not make a pleasing photo. In order to overcome this it is important to get the front of the lens as close to the plastic as possible and shield the front of the lens with a lens hood to ensure all light is omitted. The best type of lens hood for this purpose is made out of rubber. Think of a small plunger, and that’s the type of lens hood required since these can be placed right up against the plastic and suckered on. This creates an airtight seal that significantly reduces the amount of light between the lens and the plastic. A plastic lens hood will also work but, in reality, these aren’t quite as good as the rubber type. If you find yourself without a lens hood the best solution is to shield the front of the lens with a hand or an arm. Alternatively, a piece of clothing, such as a jacket or jumper, can be used to wrap around the end of the lens.

A flash gun is an invaluable piece of kit that should be carried at all times. Many people think that a flash is only used in dark places or at night, however this is not the case. A flash can be used to provide additional light to subjects that are deep in shadows to provide a more even exposure. Dark shadows are prevalent on bright and sunny days therefore a flash is required even when there is plenty of ambient light.

Many photographers will argue that a flash is a waste of time for nature photography because the animals are usually so far away that the flash will have no effect whatsoever. However, this is not the case with many animals at zoos and safari parks since the confinement means animals are not too far away and often well in range for a flash. Because of this the flash can be used to good effect in fill in mode. A flashgun is also useful for dark enclosures, such as monkey and reptile houses and other areas when there is little natural light.

A flash gun, such as the Canon EX43011 is a very useful bit of kit when the light levels are low. Before using a flash gun you should check with the zoo keepers to make sure it is ok. If the animals are startled by the flash gun then turn it off immediately and do not use it.

The Canon 430 flashgun

Before using a  flash gun you must check with the zoo or safari park that flash photography is permitted. If flash photography is permitted remember to put the welfare of the animals first. If the animals are scared or behave erratically after the first shot then remove the flash gun or turn it off immediately. In these circumstances you will just have to increase the ISO, open the lens, decrease the shutter speed or do a combination of all three in order to get the photograph. 

An alternative to a standard flash gun is ringflash, such as the Marumi ringflash. A ringflash is less powerful than a standard flash gun, so it should not scare the animals as much. A ringflash produces nice round catch lights in the eyes, which will make for some pleasing photographs.

The marumi ringflash loaded on to a Canon digital SLR camera

Arguably, zoos and safari parks are the best places to bag those animal photographs, and whilst it may seem easy at first it is clear to see that obtaining professional looking photographs in these places can be a real challenge. However, with a bit of patience, perseverance and common sense these challenges can be overcome and the end photographs can be very rewarding, especially when there is no evidence the animal is in captivity in the final photograph.

Twycross zoo claims tobe the largest primate centre in the UK. Here we have an image of a chimpanzee perched high above its play pen looking out over the zoo. This photograph was captured using my Canon EF70mm - 200mm F4L IS USM lens. The image stabilisation feature was needed in the less than favourable light conditions. 

A captive chimpanzee looks to the heavens wondering what life has in store

When photographing animals, whether at the zoo or safari park, or out in the wild it is important to put the welfare of the animal first at all times. If the animals appear distressed, upset, angry or they change their behaviour then put the camera away and simply enjoy looking at them. Or, move on and find a different subject to photograph.

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Comments

Jul 26, 2011 12:40am
JudyE
This is a very informative article and has real advice in it, unlike some articles that don't really tell you much (perhaps I'd better check my own!). Anyway I think it's great. Well done.
Jul 26, 2011 7:28am
yackers1
Thanks for the kind words JudyE - I hope all my articles are of some use to somebody out there!
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