Zoo Photography Tutorial – 9 Steps for Those Perfect Shots

I’m on my way to Los Angeles California for a quick holiday and I just bought my ticket for the L.A. Zoo. I have to admit that I haven’t been to many zoos. I’m always conflicted when I go there. Seeing animals in small enclosures like slaves breaks my heart but at the same time, I can’t deny the education those zoos give us, especially children. They create an awareness of how precious, diversified and beautiful life is. That we need to take care of it or else…

It’s also a great opportunity to photograph animals that we would probably never see otherwise.  Zoo photography can be a rewarding experience if you follow some simple steps.

Step 1 – Research

Before going to the zoo, do your homework. Go to their Website and look at the photo gallery for inspiration. Also look at a map of the grounds and prioritize which animals you’d like to shoot. Then look on the Web for animal behaviors and sleep patterns as well as scanning through images for more inspiration.

Some zoos might also have no-flash or no-tripod policies in certain areas. Make sure you know where they are prior to your arrival just in case you miss the signs (like so many seem to do).

Step 2 – The Best Time to Go

Remember that the best light is either early in the morning or a few hours before sunset so try to photograph your favorite animals during that time. Keep the indoor shots for mid-day when the sun is high in the sky. If you<re lucky to have an overcast day then enjoy shooting all day without any worries. 🙂

Seasons can also affect animal behavior so you might want to consider when you’ll be taking that long photography weekend. You might find that animals with fur coats are less likely to move around in hot weather. They might also hide in the shade away from your camera.

Take note of  special events, like feedings and shows like flying bird demonstrations. You can catch some great shots if you plan around those events.

Step 3 – What to Bring

Lenses: It goes without saying that you should have a telephoto lens with you like a 70-200mm, 70-300mm or my favorite, the 80-400mm. If you can have one with image stabilization technology, that would be a nice bonus. You need a telephoto lens to get in really close and also to remove unwanted backgrounds. They also create nice, soft bokeh.

Most zoos will also have a creepy crawly enclosure with reptiles, spiders and butterflies. This is when a fast macro lens comes in handy. I say fast because some of those displays are in darker areas so being able to shoot at f2.8 is almost a necessity. An 80mm macro or a 105mm macro would be my lens of choice.

Make sure you keep your lens hood on your camera. Not only will it protect your lens from crowds or fences, it might also prevent sun flares. You don’t always have a choice of where you can shoot and you might have the sun as a backlight.

If you can, bring a tripod. A tripod is essential for those dark, indoor areas where long exposures are a must and/or flash is usually not permitted.

Consider bringing a flash. I personally don’t use a flash on most animals since I know it bothers them and in some cases might even harm them. But I will use it with butterflies or exotic flowers.

Don’t forget extra memory cards and an extra battery.

Step 4 – Think About Composition

It might not always be that easy to think about composition at a zoo but taking a few minutes to survey the animal’s surroundings can make the difference between the “tourist” shot and a great photo. For more detailed tips on composition, check out my complete Introduction to composition tutorial.

Context: observe the animal’s surroundings and see where would be the best spot to add the best “natural” habitat so that the animal looks like its in the wild.

Simplicity: get in as close as you can to eliminate background distractions.  Think in terms of taking a portrait of a human being. Look for their good side, facial expressions, the right light to flatter their features. Make sure you focus on the eyes.

Point of View: if you can, try getting at eye level with your subject. This will bring a sense of presence and intimacy with your subject. Try unusual and strange angles. You just never know what kind of masterpiece will come out of those shots. 🙂

Rule of Thirds: Try thinking of the rule of thirds. Now, don’t get obsessed by it. Just play around with it, experiment and have fun keeping your subject off center.

Step 5 – Those Dreaded Fences

Shooting through fences is most likely unavoidable. Here’s my recipe for great “through the fence” shots. The trick here is to get as close to the fence as possible to get the least amount of fence in the shot and to have it as far away from your subject relative to your lens. Use your telephoto lens and zoom all the way in. Set your aperture to its widest setting (smallest number) to get shallow depth of field. Aim and shoot. Repeat at will.

Step 6 – That Dreaded Glass

The great thing about glass is that you don’t have a fence to worry about. The bad thing about glass is that it reflects all light hitting it so you get glare. The trick here it to simply change you angle of view until most or all glare disappears. If you’re using flash, you’ll really have to be at an angle or else you’ll have the infamous white spot in the middle of your photo. If you brought and off camera flash like an SB-800 or a 550-EX, hold it in one hand at an angle.

Step 7 – Respect Zoo Rules

If you’re a law-abiding citizen you might brush this off and skip to the next step…. but don’t! Sometimes the evil beast that is the photographer in us will go to almost any length to get “the shot”.  So read on…

Don’t Distract the Animals: if those kids do it why shouldn’t I? Imagine if you were in a enclosed setting with 1000s of people walking by all day yelling at you to look this way and that way, yelling even louder when you don’t cooperate. Throwing things at you to get your attention. Not pleasant right? Please respect the animals. If you don’t have your shot yet, follow step #9.

Stay in Designated Areas: security is very important. Remember that those are wild animals and they do have unpredictable behaviors. Respect the boundaries set by the zoo. It’s for your safety and the animal’s safety.

Step 8 – Respect Other People

Ask for Permission: don’t take other people’s photos without their permission, even zoo employees (unless they’re doing a demonstration where cameras are permitted). Think like a non-editorial stock photographer.

Wait Your Turn: zoos can get crowded, especially on weekends. Don’t think that because you have a big camera with a big lens you have the right of way. Everyone paid the same price to get in and deserve your respect just like you deserve their respect. If you plan on following step#9 and be there a while, give your spot up for a few minutes.

Step 9 – Patience is a Virtue

Last but not least, patience. Most of the time you’ll have to practice patience to get the best shots. These aren’t models in your studio that you can just direct… “move a little more to the left”, “tilt your head to the right”, “give me sad puppy eyes”…. you have to wait for them. It’s a waiting game and if you’re patient you’ll get your photograph.

There you have it. I can guaranty you that if you follow these 9 steps, your zoo photography will become a wonderful experience. I’d love to see some of your best zoo photos! Post the links in the comments! 🙂

12 responses on "Zoo Photography Tutorial - 9 Steps for Those Perfect Shots"

  1. thanks for your tips, i just visited a zoo but i’ve had some problems with their glasses and reflections. Next time i’ll change my angle of view, i hope to shoot great pictures like you!!

  2. Great tutorial. Now I know what to do on my next zoo visit. My first photos would have gotten better had I know this tricks. thanks.

  3. Some really great tips. I am so excited to back to the zoo and redeem myself and my photography!

  4. One thing you forgot to mention. You should not attempt to publish any photo without the express written conscent of the zoo. You will get in big trouble. Most zoos will charge a fee. Sometimes as much as $500.

  5. Love receiving your emails, great advice. Know what you mean about seeing caged animals but some like the amor leopard are extinct in the wild (only 30 in captivity) so if zoos did not exist nor would this leopard. Keep up the good work. x

  6. What a nice post… thank you so much 🙂

    After reading everywhere that Zoo photos are NO GOOD, but thanks to you now I wanna go to the zoo 🙂


  7. Great Writing. It was really helpful.


  8. Some great shots there guys! 🙂

  9. There’s a reason why most zoos prohibit the use of flash, and those reasons aren’t less in others. If flash doesn’t bother the animals (and even if one doesn’t, how about if you multiply a single flash by the number of visitors…) it will the other visitors. Just be responsible and don’t flash at all. They won’t be your best pics anyway.

  10. Some great advice there. I recently did a Safari Park photo trip and had most of those points floating around in my head, but it’s great when someone else validates your vague ideas into an advice column!

    Some of my better safari park shots are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrbennstep/sets/72157622030831302/

    Another point about animals behind glass – if you can, get the lens right up to the glass so it is pretty much touching it (and flat on). This does limit the angle of your shot (and you get in the way of other people if it’s busy) but you can pretty much remove all the reflections this way.

  11. One point you left out of “Those Dreaded Fences”:
    You may want to use manual focus, particularly if the fence grid is fine. Otherwise, your autofocus will drive you crazy as it zooms back and forth between the fence right in front of you and your subject much further away.

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