Most people will never get an opportunity to take a photo safari in Africa or shoot bighorn sheep on a mesa out west. The closest thing to stalking wildlife and taking pictures of exotic animals is spending a day at the local zoo.
Wildlife photography presents many challenges. Among those are traveling to distant lands, enduring harsh weather conditions, waiting for the right light conditions, and personal safety. That’s why zoos and nature preserves receive millions of visitors annually.
When spending a day at a zoo taking pictures plan the shots that you want in advance and make sure to bring along all the gear you will need to get the job done. The list should include camera bodies, lenses, filters, accessories, and a sturdy tripod. You want to shoot efficiently and avoid surprises.
My assortment of lenses will include a fast wide-angle zoom (Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8), an 18-55mm zoom, a 200mm prime focus lens, a 2x teleconverter, a 50-200mm lens (for versatility) or a 70-300mm lens. I also like carrying a super-telephoto lens to get me really close to my target. Many times the added weight is worth the effort.
Plan your day around the animals you want to photograph, the zoo layout, the amount of available time available, and weather conditions. In bright sun, look for shady places to take a break from the heat.
I use polarized filters to cut glare on grasses and water. I plan shots to prevent capturing images with concrete enclosures and man-made structures as much as possible. I never want cages in my pictures. Here are some examples from the Columbus Zoo in mid Ohio.
In the pictures above, I used a 70-300mm lens to fill the frame with my subject. This helps keep everything in my composition as natural as possible. I want the image to look as though the animal was shot in the wild.
TIP: Zoom in until your subject completely fills the frame, now back out slightly and take the shot. This eliminates cluttered backgrounds and distractions from spoiling otherwise good images.
When you are really close to a small subject, like a bird, for example, you need a fast lens to keep your shutter speed as high as possible. Birds are constantly moving. I use the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 lens for these shots.
This lorikeet is a perfect example. This little fellow was constantly moving and there were lots of people coming and going. I set the aperture at 2.8 in order to blur the background. There are people behind the bird, but, they are so blurry you can’t even see them. Depth of field is so shallow here that the bird’s head is crisp and clear and the lower body is already starting to blur.
TIP: Focus on the bird’s eye. You want to capture the eyes and a little “catch light” if possible. Notice the light reflection in the birds eye? I love the eye color, too.
The leopard below was fairly close to me. Even though there was a chain link fence behind him, I was able to shoot with a wide-open aperture and blur out the chain links almost entirely. Look close and you can see that they are there but, they are not a distraction at this point.
The Columbus Zoo is so big these days that it really takes more than one day to photograph every animal they have on exhibit.
Some recent enclosures look as though they were designed to prevent people like me from getting great pictures. I look long and hard for ways to get around that problem. You should do the same. Look for vantage points that avoid busy backgrounds, people, and cables, wires, concrete, anything that is unnatural.
Keep track of your gear. Never set anything down while you are shooting, it might get stolen. Make sure that you keep an eye on your surroundings and whether or not people are watching you. If possible, bring along a companion. Better safe than sorry.