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    How to Take Good Zoo Pictures, by sabbath999


    The purpose of this article is to help you make great pictures at the zoo. I will try to avoid writing a blah-blah-blah article and just tell you some things I have learned in capturing more than 40,000 pictures at more than 50 different zoos & aquariums over the last few years. The following is strictly my thoughts and opinions based on my experiences… for good or bad, I am one of the most experienced zoo photographers in the nation, and I would be surprised to find more than a handful of people who have taken as many pictures in as many zoos from ranging Atlanta to Hilo.

    Let’s get right to it.

    First and foremost, I want everybody to understand one thing up front… animals that live in the zoo are not wild, no matter what the zoo PR & advertising department tries to say. They are, in many ways, domesticated. They do not choose when they are fed, they don’t get to choose where they live, or sleep at night, and they are thoroughly accustomed to seeing people and most importantly to this discussion in seeing photographers with flashes. I know some people feel a compunction about taking pictures of a zoo animal with a flash, but wouldn’t have any problems taking a picture of their dog or cat with one… with certain exceptions (which I will outline) this is silly. These animals are far more used to photographers and their flashes than your dog is. I use a flash, when appropriate.

    The other main point I want to make up front is something I learned in SCUBA diving… in diving, a safe diver always plans his dive, and then dives his plan. In zoo photography, a smart photographer should plan his shoot, and then shoot his plan. When you decide to go to the zoo to take pictures, ask yourself “What kind of images am I trying to get?” Do you want to just wander around and shoot what you see? Are you trying to get that “WOW!” shot of a tiger or a meerkat? Do you want to do overall shots, shoot flowers and bugs, etc.? Once you know what you are trying to do, then set yourself up for success by figuring out the best way to do it.

    Let’s start with a list of do’s and don’ts. Some of these are blatantly obvious, but I need to say them up front. If you just want to knock around the zoo and snap a few shots, you can ignore some of these… but you will end up with pictures that look like you just knocked around the zoo and got a few snapshots. When making my recommendations, I am assuming that most people will be shooting a local zoo… we have different plans for local zoos and zoos that we will only be visiting the one time. If we are visiting a zoo that is far off for us, we will likely only have that one time to try to capture as much about the zoo as we can. Our ‘minimum’ for any zoo we go to is 100 keepers, which can be difficult for some of the tiny zoos we go to (especially because on these trips we often shoot two zoos a day and there is often hours of travel time between the two). Bigger zoos we spend one day, and that really isn’t enough time… For zoos that we go back to time and again (St. Louis, Kansas City, Des Moines, Omaha) we take more specialized equipment and concentrate on just nailing a few really good shots.
    If you are seriously trying to get good pictures at the zoo:

    Don’t bring your kids (unless you want to spend all day taking pictures of your kids). If you must bring your kids, then bring your spouse to watch over them while you do your thing. As a parent, you will want your kids to have fun, and will want to spend time with them… take them to the zoo BEFORE you go back and shoot it yourself, which will give you a chance to familiarize yourself with the layout.

    Don’t go on a Saturday or Sunday, on a school holiday. Way too many people and too many distractions.

    Don’t go when it is raining. You have to worry about your gear getting wet, and the animals will look downtrodden when wet.

    Don’t take your camera bag filled with all kinds of gear. Plan your shoot, and take only what you need. I recommend 2 bodies (if you have them), one with a wide angle zoom and one with a tele-zoom. Take an external flash. Unless you are planning on shooting macro, that’s all you need. I generally sling a D40 with an 18-55 VR on one shoulder (or a Kodak Z712IS point and shoot, depending on what I am doing) and a D300 with either a 70-200 VR or a 55-200 VR (depending on the zoo and circumstances). I carry an SB-600 in my pocket, two circular polarizers and that’s the entire kit I use. No camera bag. My wife carries a D80 with and 18-200 VR and nothing else.

    Don’t take a tripod. You don’t need one, you will just get in everybody’s way and there’s a decent chance some kid will knock your equipment over when tripping on it. I have seen a Mk 5 Canon with a 70-200 f/2.8L knocked over and smashed while on a tripod by an excited 6 year old who was climbing up to see the bears. An ugly scene ensued. A tripod will NOT help you get significantly better pictures of zoo animals when using equipment that is appropriate to be dragging around a zoo anyways. If you simply can’t handhold your lens, take a gorilla pod or a monopod… or even a beanbag. Keep in mind that there is ALWAYS something to brace your lens on at a zoo.

    Don’t use a flash when the zoo posts a “no flashes” sign, especially in “creatures of the night” exhibits and in certain aquarium areas (some fish are very sensitive to it). If the zoo doesn’t want you to use a flash, they will tell you (generally with a BUNCH of signs). If you are in a no-flash zone, take your flash off your camera if you are using an external flash. Animals who hate flashes are smart enough (well, OK, the fish aren’t) to know what one looks like and even the sight of a flash may agitate them.

    Do learn how to use your camera before you go. This sounds stupid, but learning how to actually focus your camera, set the white balance and expose pictures properly will help your zoo pictures experience immensely.

    Do learn how to properly hold your camera so you don’t need a tripod at all, and can limit the use of a monopod or gorilla pod. I am a photojournalist by training, and by mastering proper handholding techniques, you can really set yourself up to be an elite “walk around” photographer. Remember, this isn’t wildlife shooting in a remote environment… it is taking pictures in a fluid, often crowded situation where you are going to get bumped and jostled.

    Do learn about animals. The more you know about a particular type of animal, the better your chance of getting a good picture of it.

    There are also some zoo-specific tips that I want to share with you all… some things a lot of people have trouble with that I can help you with.

    Cages: Single level caging, where the animal is only behind one layer, can often be dealt with… but it is tricky. If the caging is where you can put your camera up against it, simply put your camera so that you can shoot through the bars. If, as is most common, the cage is between you and the critter, then pick an area that is shaded if possible and shoot through it. Get as close to the cage as you can, use the fastest lens you own, shoot wide open and shoot the animal when it is as far from the fence as possible. That’s your best shot.

    Glass: Take glass cleaner with you to wipe off the grime. Most of the zoo glass is that awful double layered stuff, so you just have to do your best. Press your lens against the glass and shoot at a 25 degree angle if you can, this is the least amount of distortion. If you are using a flash, use an external flash and make SURE you are pressing against the glass. If the glass is that horrible green tinted stuff, you can easily fix that in post by (I will use the Photoshop method here since most photographers don’t do it “my” way which is to use Capture NX) adding a channel mixer layer, choosing the RED layer and bumping up the green channel a bit. Works like a charm.

    Planning: Show up and be ready to go when the zoo opens… be first in line… know beforehand where the big carnivores like cats and wolves are… this is your best chance of getting a shot of them doing something cool. Carnivores sleep 18-20 hours a day, but they are just being or have just been fed and put out which means they are awake. Save the hay-burners for later, since they have to spend most of their days grazing… they will be awake all day. Know where the animals are, and know what you want to capture ahead of time.

    Fences: A lot of small zoos use chain link fences, and for these zoos I will often take my 55-200 VR instead of the 70-200 VR because the small size of the lens fits nicely into chain link, eliminating that problem. I also often carry a super zoom point & shoot for the same reason.

    Cloudy/Overcast days: They are your best friends for taking animal pictures, since they will soften shadows. Watch your white balance if shooting JPEG (Please no RAW bashers here, some folks don’t have cameras that shoot RAW), because you are going to be a bit bluish if you don’t compensate for it.

    Sunny Days: Great for overall pictures, and your best shots will come on days like this… but… sun makes your work a lot harder. Pay attention to the orientation of the enclosures, and plan your shoot so that you work west to east as the day progresses to limit the backlighting situations you will get into. Always try to work the zoo so that you will have the best sun angles for your shots.

    Focus: Nail the eyes. This is critical. People will forgive a lot of errors in pictures, but the eyes being out of focus is the one “unpardonable sin” of animal photography. Set your focus spot on the eye. The biggest problems I see in people who post their shots of zoos is that they are missing focus. Using the sharpening in Photoshop doesn’t make up for focusing errors.

    Exposure: You need to learn how to use aperture and shutter priority (or manual if you are one of those folks who use that…). Animals that are moving should be shot at 1/500th of a second MINIMUM, and preferably at 1/640th or higher. Even if they are moving slow, their limbs will blur. You need to learn depth of field, and how to best use it to blur backgrounds. A lot of folks will say you need to learn how to shoot on full manual… I am not one of them. I never, EVER, shoot full manual (that’s another article entirely) except when using a flash in a studio situation or doing underwater flash photography. I simply choose whether I need to stop action (moving animal) or control the depth of field (aperture priority mode)… if I need to do both, I bump the ISO. It is far better to have a noisy picture than one where the animal is blurred or out of focus. You can fix noise, you can’t really fix out of focus.

    White Balance: You simply just have to learn how to do this if you don’t already know.

    Bird’s flight paths: Birds fly off in the direction that they are pointed when they are sitting on a branch or perch or whatever. They never, ever, take off backwards. If a bird gets twitchy, or poops, then it is ready to go, so crank up that shutter speed to 1/1000th or faster, and frame it so that the bird will fly into your frame (they always drop when they take off, at least a bit).

    Yawns: Cats almost always yawn more than once, so if you missed the first one, keep ready for the next. Set your camera to continuous and blaze away during the yawn… you will catch a very ferocious look.

    Sea Lion shows: If you want to take pictures of sea lions doing their behaviors, shoot some during the show but realize that they always work with the animals after the shows as well so you can get closer after it is over. Simply walk up to the rail after it is done and you will get a much better chance to get a shot.

    Best time: For animal pictures, a lightly overcast day in the early morning. For overall pictures, early morning with lots of sun.

    Typical settings: When walking from enclosure to enclosure, I kick over to to shutter priority mode and set my shutter to 640 or so... that way I can catch anything I see fast. I generally run my D300 at 800 ISO even on sunny days and 400 ISO on our D80 and D40. Honestly, only a pixel peeper can tell the difference between those settings and the 200 ISO on those cameras, so why not give yourself a bit of range?

    Manual Focus: You need to learn how to do this to shoot through caging/bars.

    Reflections in glass: OK, this one is tough, especially in double pane class with trapped air space like you see a lot at zoos. I wear a black hat most of the time, and drape it around the lens. I press the lens against the glass, shoot at a 30-45 degree angle and that is about all one can do.

    Animals that like to hide: Be patient. Don't bang on the cage or tap the glass... sometimes it is better to just move on and get a better shot elsewhere. One trick that sometimes works to get an animal to turn is to rattle some metal keys together... in some places this reminds the animals of a sound that keepers make when it is time for food. It works about one in ten times, but it is not intrusive and you might give it a try if you are stuffed for a shot. Don't try to make animal noises, it won't work and you will look like a goober.

    The Law: Generally, you can use the pictures that you take at zoos for your own personal enjoyment and for educational purposes. You CAN'T generally sell these images as the zoo owns the property and reserves the rights to the imagery taken there for commercial purposes. There is much more to this subject (enough to make its own article) but I just wanted you to be aware that you should not expect to make a living taking "wildlife" pictures at a zoo and selling them without getting yourself into a legal mess. Property releases are generally (although not always) available, but they are not free. You are less likely to have a problem with this at smaller zoos. Small town zoos generally are just happy you show up to visit them.

    Best Day to avoid crowds: Mondays (non-holiday) and Thursdays

    Best Times to avoid crowds: When the zoo opens, and right before it closes.

    Here's my complete equipment list of what I take in the car:

    We use some or all of the following:

    Nikon D300
    Nikon D80
    Nikon D40
    Kodak Z712IS
    70-200 VR
    TC-17 (teleconverter for the 70-200)
    55-200 VR
    18-55 VR
    18-200 VR (her lens of choice, me… well I hate the thing).
    Tamron 70-300 AF 70-300 LD DI (for when I need a bit more reach & macro and also when the 70-200 VR has broken my back because I have been carrying it 8 hours a day for 4 days) & generally left in the car.
    B+W low profile circular polarizing filters.
    105 VR Macro (for bugs & flowers, generally left in the car)
    DRF-14 Ring Flash (for bugs & flowers, generally left in the car)
    Canon A710IS in waterproof case (If I have driven 500 miles to go to a zoo and it is pouring rain, I am STILL taking pictures at the zoo… they may suck, but by golly I will have some shots) that stays in the car unless it is POURING.

    That’s pretty much the whole kit. No tripods or monopods, certainly no multi-flash setups, umbrellas (yes, I have seen people using these at zoos) or other nonsense.

    One last thing: Don't get hung up on the equipment you take. Take a good sharp lens that can get you at least 350mm (including crop factor ratio). It doesn't need to be super fast unless you are shooting indoors, but of course a nice sharp 2.8 pro lens is best. My usual setup gives me 18-55 with image stabilization on a camera/lens setup that weighs NOTHING, and 70-200 with image stabilization on a “prosumer” camera that will give me pristine image quality if I shoot correctly. Having said that, I can also go to the zoo with nothing more than the $120 Kodak Z712 IS point & shoot camera, and come back with some VERY nice pictures. Some of my best zoo shots have been taken with a cheap point & shoot, simply because the zoo offers an outdoor setting with plenty of light and medium-telephoto opportunities... that's something that just about ANY camera on the market with a long lens can do.

    Happy shooting!




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