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9 Secret Tips to Photographing Animals at a Zoo

I recently got some nice images of the Tigers at the San Diego Safari Park and wanted to share some helpful tips on how to get great animal pictures at the zoo.

I drove to the San Diego Safari Park on the opening day of their new Tiger Trail exhibit. What a mistake. The promotion for the new exhibit had been all over the news and the crowds showed up in droves. It was a weekend and as I got closer to the park, I saw more cars than I have EVER seen before. 

Tip #1: If you can, come back at a better time.

If you go to a location and conditions just aren't right, come back another day if you can. Maybe the sunset you were planning to shoot doesn't have the clouds to add some interest, maybe a flower field you just hiked to during the middle of the day lacks the complimentary lighting of a morning sun. Or maybe the animal park that you just arrived at is so packed with people that you know that you're going to be fighting the crowds and jostling for position just to get the shots. I know this may not be an option if you're from out of town, but if it's possible, take that option. You won't be sorry that you did. When you do return, get there as early as you can: when the park opens. Not only will you avoid the harsh light of the mid day sun, but you'll also avoid the crowds that are sure to increase as the day goes along.

Tip #2: Scout out the lay of the land.

The design of many of the new exhibits allows you to view animals from more than one location. Before the crowds have packed in yet, use your time to scout out every possible position you might shoot from and make mental notes. Pay attention to areas that the animals might choose. Which way might they face? What would make a good background? Are there paths where you might capture a nice walking image? Think about where you would need to be in order to get the right shot when the time comes.

Tip #3: Be patient, but decisively move to a new location if your spot goes stale. 

Capturing great images of animals is often a waiting game and requires patience. It's all about the odds. I wouldn't plan on shooting much more than a few select animals on any one visit. If you're at the zoo to explore and see a large number of animals, that means you won't be able to stay at any one spot for very long. This really decreases the odds that you'll be able to capture a memorable image of an animal. It's always possible to get lucky, but again it's all about the odds. Increase your odds by limiting your animal choices to only a few (or one) for your visit. Be patient, with your animal, but be ready to move if the spot you've chosen doesn't bear fruit. When to move or stay? You'll have to decide depending on the situation. Is the cat or monkey pacing and moving around or are they settled in for a little while? 

Tip #4: Bring a long, fast lens. Borrow or rent one if you have to.

By long I mean something in the 200mm - 600 mm range. Nothing is quite as dramatic as an image of an animal that fills the frame and isolates it from the background. The opposite is also true. Most boring snapshots have a lot of unneeded distracting scenery in the background where everything is in focus. Using a long lens allows you to get close to your subject, capture expressions and shrink that depth of field so that you can nicely blur that background. You want to show off the animal as your main subject, not the trees and rocks of the enclosure.

Tip #5: Bring a monopod

Big long lenses are heavy. Tripods are not a good idea and may not be allowed. Get your spot, setup with your eye on the viewfinder and finger on the trigger. Wait for those decisive moments, then fire away! If you do this for hours with a monopod, your arms and back will thank you. 

Tip #6: Use a lens hood and bring a friend with a jacket if you can

This is especially important if you are shooting through the glass of an enclosure. It's not ideal, but sometimes you have no choice. Many of the photo examples that I've included below were shot through enclosure glass, but there are some tricks to getting it right. Glass is notorious for being reflective and decreasing your contrast. The best way to combat this is to block out any reflection that you can. I'll shoot with my lens hood touching the glass and block out as much light as I can with my hand, hat or jacket. If you can bring a friend with you, bonus groovy! Ask them to hold the jacket to help block out the light. 

Tip #7: Bring a bandana

This one goes along with the enclosure glass tip above. Glass is often smudged up from other visitors. Noses and palms have been pressed by curious and inquisitive guests that were there before you. I keep a bandana in my back pocket and rub away the offending smudges and blur spots before I start shooting. Tuck it back in your pocket and you're good to go. 

Tip #8: Set your camera up

Shoot in burst with continuous frames. Things can happen fast. You want to be ready to catch 'em. Set your auto focus to Servo mode. Choose a Single point focus and put it on the eye of your animal. You want their eyes to alway be nice and sharp. I like to shoot in Aperture Priority mode and white balance for daylight. 

Tip #9: Wait for interesting moments

Be patient and friendly. Notice I brought up the patient thingy a 2nd time? Ya, it's that important. Don't just settle for pictures of your animal taking a nap or just standing there. Wait for those moments that stand out. This means you may be shooting a lot of frames, but in the age of digital, it doesn't really cost you much more than time. Wait for an action or activity then fire a few bursts. Try to especially capture any moment that your animal happens to look directly at you and your lens. Images that have eye contact are especially powerful. 

There you have it! With a little luck, patience, gear and some skill you should be able to capture some nice images of animals at a zoo. Go get 'em!

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Sonny PortacioComment