This article first appeared in the August 2013 issue of Advanced Photographer magazine.
Situated in the North-west of England, Chester Zoo is the UK’s largest zoological gardens, in addition to being the most visited wildlife attraction in Britain, and being named by Forbes in 2007 as one of the best fifteen zoo’s in the world, it should almost certainly be at the top of places to visit for anyone with even the slightest interest in photographing a diverse range of animals that short of visiting far off lands would not normally be accessible to all but a fortunate few.
I’m very lucky in that I live just a couple of miles away so often visit at least a few times a week, but if making a one-off trip, would suggest planning on being there for the whole day, and visiting on a weekday if at all possible, can get extremely busy during weekends and school holidays. Would also be advisable to wear some comfy footwear, the zoo is vast and you will be doing a lot of walking!
Kit wise, it is always tempting with it being such a large attraction to pack everything to cover all bases, leave most of your gear (securely!) in the car though and just take your longest and/or fastest lens, you’ll thank me several hours later after covering many miles of walking! I now only ever take my Nikon D800 which is ideal for its superb high ISO performance as many of the enclosures can become quite gloomy looking if the sun doesn’t come out (which is most of the time at moment!), I’m regularly shooting at ISO 3200 upwards with perfectly acceptable results.
The D800 is paired up with a Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 which is more than long enough for the majority of things to see and allows a reasonable shutter speed to be achieved when light is low, or the option of opening it wide open to blur backgrounds – great for obscuring fences and the like.
A lot of the animals are behind glass viewing windows and reflections will create issues, for the majority of these enclosures though you can get the lens right up to the window to prevent these, and also helps stabilising the lens, a makeshift VR system!
You will also need a lot of patience, the best images are always obtained by just watching the animals before the camera is even switched on, look for behaviour traits, dominant individuals, infants, bonding, anything that will give your images the edge over a standard snapshot.
If you arrive whilst the Zoo is still reasonably quiet, heading straight to see the Jaguars and various primates would be a good place to start as these often are the busiest attractions later in the day. Also worth finding out from the very helpful staff around the site when the feeding times are as this will be when the animals will be at their most active and photogenic.
One other challenge you may face is when visiting either the butterfly house or the red apes, be prepared to stand around doing nothing for several minutes while the fog on your lens clears, wiping it away does little to alleviate it so best just to wait until clears naturally before starting shooting again.
If your feet can take it, staying until closing time can pay dividends as the crowds often subside long before the gates close giving you free rein around the gardens and often the animals undivided attention.