Photogrpahy at the zoo


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Oct 18, 2007
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Just out of interest, i was wondering what you need to take photos at the zoo, and if anyone has any tips. I've heard that a rubber lens hood is good as you can put it right up against the glass, but are there any other tips, like what speed film you'll need, and what focal length lens is needed?
When I visited the zoo I took a Nikon D40x with my 55-200mm zoom lens. I was able to get most of the shots I wanted with that one lens. I would recommend, based on my experience, that you take a shorter lens, especially if you are going with a group so you can get good shots of them.

You can check out my gallery at the bottom and when you go into the Animals pictures, you can see the Exif data for the pictures. That might give you some idea of what the shot looked like at those settings, so you can guage what to do.

A lens hood can be a good idea for some of the attractions, since you might not be able to adjust your angle to account for the sun.

Also you might want to bring either UV Filters (for sun) or Polarizing filters to clear up water. You might also be able to use the Polarizer filter to clear up the glass reflections from the displays as well.
a lens hood, a polarizer, a regular zoom, and whatever is your longest lens...probably covers what you'd need/want.
And wear dark colours, in the event there are a lot of glass-enclosed exhibits (so your clothing doesn't reflect as much in it). Assuming it's mainly the animals that you want to take pictures of (as opposed to the people you may be going there with), your biggest zoom will come in handy.
My 18-55 kit lens worked fine for close ups and animals in small habitats, but the deer and the peacocks and the animals in bigger habitats require a better zoom.

A pack of windex wipes might come in handy for glass enclosed wipe away little fingerprints and smudges.

If you can get your lens up to the fence, use the holes in the chain link to get obstacle free photos. I don't recommend that with more dangerous animals of course, LOL, but they are usually behind better barriers than a single chain link.

Here's some zoo pictures I took in July . They aren't perfect, but I was still learning my camera's settings.

I'd also suggest going on a day the zoo isn't crowded and plan you route by getting animal's feeding/play schedules ahead of time. Also plan by light, especially if you are using film (unless you meant ISO speed on a digital camera which can be adjusted with each picture if you want). You may not get the same results in a sunny section as you will in enclosed reptile houses, etc, so plan to take outdoor pics on one set of rolls and indoor pics on another set.
I used a rented 70-200 2.8 Canon lens when I went to the zoo and it worked almost perfectly. I wasn't taking pictures of the people I was with, only animals. I could've used even longer zoom for a few different animals (elk, buffalo, rhino) that were in the back corner of fields staying away from all the people. I got plenty of pictures though, so I'm not going to complain.
That depends entirely on what you are taking a photo of. My last trip in the zoo I used everything from a macro lens, to wide angle, and ISO100 to ISO2400, depending if I was in the nocturnal critter cage or outside with the kangaroos or photographing birds through cages.

All I can say is take your entire kit
Thanks everyone, I think I'll just be taking pictures of animals, on film
One more thing. I have a 75 - 200 mm lens and also a 2 times teleconverter. How much would using this teleconverter degrade image quality, and would it affect my maximum aperture too?
It will the 2x teleconverter I believe drops 3 stops of light? Someone correct me if I am wrong.

As for the image quality that depends on the lens. Teleconverters are usually reasonably high quality single lens elements which magnify the centre of the lens. So if you have a sharp lens like the Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8 on some entry level SLRs you may not even notice a difference, but if you're trying to get 600mm from the Nikkor 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 well it was bearly usable at 300mm before, you will probably just get a blur out if it now.
You need a complete lack of interest in investing energy into finding your subject matter.

Going to the zoo to take photographs of "wild" animals is tantamount to going to a prison for portraits.
Going to the zoo to take photographs of "wild" animals is tantamount to going to a prison for portraits.

Love that analogy Max. But the zoo can be a great source of material. We have a lot of wildlife in out neighborhood, but I still have only ever seen a white lion at the Cincinnati Zoo. OTOH, the colorful crack headed, panhandling street urchin (think the cover of the album Aqualung) individuals I spotted on the way to the zoo, well they were only outside the gates. Thankfully.
You need a complete lack of interest in investing energy into finding your subject matter.

Going to the zoo to take photographs of "wild" animals is tantamount to going to a prison for portraits.

Personally, I think prison would be an interesting place to do portraiture... the stories some of those faces would tell would be fascinating.

Personally, I totally respect your opinion on this, I just don't agree with it.

Zoo animals are not wild animals, and are only called "wild" by marketers.

Taking a picture of a lion in an enclosure in St. Louis is in what way less interesting than doing your 150th session of a primped out senior girl in the same ally you have shot the previous 149 sessions, or having her lean over on some big 3D "Senior 2008" prop?

The answer is that every senior girl is different... just as every animal is different. I have seen a lot, and I do mean a LOT, of zoo critters, and I find it fascinating to see how very different they are from the previous ones.

Take last week for example. I was at the Knoxville TN zoo, and they have a white royal bengal tiger. Nearby there is a sign that says "don't use a flash, the tiger doesn't like flashes"...

Well, since the tiger was behind a chain link fence, a flash would be pointless anyway, and I had already had my flash turned off. Still, I was using a 70-200 VR with an SB-600 sitting on top, and I walked over to the fence to see what I could see. The kitty saw me coming near it, and snarled at me when I raised my camera. It knew what the camera was, and could see the flash on it... It didn't know, of course, that the flash was off. I took one shot, and realized that I had to open up my aperture some because I was getting too much of the fence in it when all the sudden the cat jumped up, and ran as hard as it could, leaped, bounced off the fence and screamed at me from about 3 feet away. It then simply flicked its tail and trotted off.

I didn't get a good picture out of the deal, but at least it was interesting...

Most people consider the zoo a place to go to take the kids to see animals in cages... but as with most conventional wisdom, this is wrong.

A modern American zoo is not a cage, it is a liferaft in the sea of biological destruction... and it is the only chance that many of these species have of being in exsistance in 100 years.

For my wife and I, what we do has a higher purpose than just going to a park and taking pictures. We are deeply committed to conservation and the Species Survival Program of the AZA.

We live in a world where bidiversity is being destroyed on a horrific scale, and the modern zoo system will save many of the species that are otherwise doomed to oblivion.

For example, I have personally seen 25 amur leopards. While this in its self doesn't sound too impressive, keep in mind that there are only 250 known amur leopards in the enitre world... and the animal would already be doomed to extinction if it were not for the zoo system. There are still some in the wild (50 or so), but not enough to maintain a diverse enough gene pool for the species to survive.

For more information about the amur leopard, click HERE

The pictures I take are used in educational materials about the animals. I supply the institutions with a complete set of full resolution photos for them to us free of charge in any of their promotional materials. I am working on a website that will index the pictures that I have taken so that school aged children can use them in their science reports.

Yes, it would be better for me to live permanently on Safari in Africa to shoot these animals in the wild, I conceed that. But I am not a gabillionaire, so that just isn't an option.

Personally, I think it is pretty good that we traveled across 17 states over the last two years on this particular project.

For us, a trip to the zoo isn't at all about seeing some cute furry kitty in the cage, it is about trying our best to take amazing pictures that will make people who look at them say "wow, that is really neat, I want to learn more about that cat (or frog, or cow, or whatever it is)..." because the only way to save these animals is for mankind to fully realize their unique and beautiful natures...

Sometimes the pictures are not all about the photographers...

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