If, like me, you spend a great deal of time photographing the flora and fauna of your local area, then you may feel the need to expand your horizons, or even take some shots of exotic animals usually seen in magazines and captured by professional wildlife photographers.  Well there is a relatively inexpensive answer.

The zoo.

Most large cities have Zoological Gardens of some sort.  Here in Adelaide, South Australia, we have a relatively small but well stocked zoo, made all the more interesting over the last few years by the addition of two pandas.

I enjoy visiting during the week when it is relatively quiet.  The animals appear to be slightly more relaxed and photographing them is easier.  In fact, on one occasion I managed to sit in one of the walk-through aviaries for almost two hours before anyone else even entered.  This gave me ample time to take some nice shots of native birds in natural looking environment.

Patience is the key.  You may wish to take some images of just one species, hoping to photograph them acting almost naturally.  This is possible, even likely if you are prepared to watch the animals for long enough.  The lions are a good example.  They spend most of their time asleep or lazing around.  You need to have your camera at the ready though.  A close up of a lion yawning or roaring is a nice dramatic shot, but you must have the camera, with all the settings adjusted, fixed on the lions face.  If you haven’t, it is unlikely you will be quick enough to move the camera up to your face and fire off a shot.

Lemur at the zooCredit: Steven Pike

You must consider the light carefully.  Numerous visits will be required before you work exactly what time of the day will suit which enclosure.  Some animals are best photographed in the sunlight and some when it is overcast.  Flash can be very important here as some animals will be half in shadow and half in sunlight.  Use fill flash to get rid of the shadows if possible.  Flash may also come in handy inside places like the reptile house where the light is quite dim.  Be careful not to disturb the animals though.  No setting off the flash full in their faces.

Keep the camera on continuous shot mode if it’s equipped with it.  It will allow you to catch some great sequences of animal behaviour.  I was lucky enough to capture a series of 7 photos of a mandrill.  He was looking straight at me when he yawned.  I focused and hit the button, capturing the shots.  They showed the mandrills massive canines and his blue and pink snout was curled up aggressively.  This camera mode is best used for faster moving animals like the birds and small monkeys.

It is not always necessary to capture the entire animal in the frame.  Do not be afraid to zoom right in on the animals face.  If doing this it is essential to have the eye in focus.  You will be amazed at the expressions on the faces and colours of the eyes.

To keep things simple and fast, I suggest operating the camera in aperture priority mode.  If you adjust the aperture, the camera will set the correct shutter speed for optimum exposure.  This allows you to adjust your depth of field depending on what kind of shot you are after.

Set the ISO on your camera to 400 if targeting fast moving species or if the light is a bit dull.  ISO200 is fine for the set shot.  (If you have a compact camera or one of the ‘superzooms’ then I would suggest a much lower ISO due to the increased noise affecting pictures from these cameras).  Use a tripod too if you have one, although a monopod is probably more practical and allows for increased mobility. 

A photography session at the zoo is a tremendous way to improve your photography skills on a wide range of animals that you do not normally have the opportunity to photograph.  It is a great way to learn and to shoot some great pictures at the same time.