I’m lucky enough to live round the corner of the biggest Zoological gardens in the UK, Chester Zoo, and regularly visit to photograph the animals on display, always come away with something different each time due to the huge number of exhibits and it’s a great place to practice camera technique, not to mention great fun seeing the animals that without spending a substantial amount on travel I wouldn’t normally get to see.
I can highly recommend Chester Zoo, but there are lots more across the country, all of which well worth a daytrip with the camera, below are a few tips that should prepare you to come away with some great images.
- Go light! Rather than lug all your gear round to cover every eventuality, a zoom lens should suffice for most exhibits and your back will thank you for it afterwards! All of the images you can see here were shot with just the one lens, a Tamron 70-200mm.
- When choosing your lens, you ideally will want either your longest focal length zoom, or your fastest lens. Conditions in a lot of enclosures will be quite dark forcing you to either use a large aperture, or less preferably bumping up the ISO.
- Tripods are generally not much use in a zoo, the animals will be moving too quickly to line up your shot sufficiently well, and you will no doubt be getting in other peoples way (expect lots of kids running about!).
A monopod though can come in handy, especially if you come across the previously mentioned dark conditions allowing you to keep your ISO to a more acceptable setting.
- Flashguns – don’t take them! Most of the zoo’s I’ve been to will allow you to take in a flash and use it, I would suggest not to though. Not only will it give you very harsh lighting most of the time and some very unattractive shadows, it can’t be good for the animals either being constantly popped with blasts of light!
- Settings you use on your camera will be determined by the lighting conditions and what works for me might not necessarily be correct for you, but I usually will shoot in Aperture Priority (Av) mode and select the widest aperture the lens will allow for two reasons: 1, this will give the fastest shutter speed possible for a given situation which is enormously helpful with all but the slowest moving animals, and 2, gives a very nice blur to everything but the subject which makes the end photograph look less like it was shot in captivity.
- Reflections are the curse of everyone who has ever used a camera in a zoo, glass viewing windows although very handy to stop us becoming dinner for a big cat, will also show up everybody stood in front of it.
To counter this, you should wear dark clothing where possible which will minimise the reflection you yourself create. Also if you can, get your lens right up to the glass, the closer you are to it, the smaller area there will be for reflections to cause problems, and if you can literally put your lens up against the glass then this will completely eliminate it.
- White Balance can also be a right pain as you walk about as the lighting used in the enclosures can differ from one to the next, and that’s before you then get outside again! Easiest way to keep on top of this is to simply put your camera into Auto White-Balance mode and shoot in RAW. This way you can change the WB when you get home and start editing.
- Patience is the key! Walking in to see a new animal and expecting to get a brilliant photograph within just a few minutes will very rarely happen. If you want to capture something other than a ‘snap’ that everyone else will get, you will need to spend some time watching the animals and seeing how they interact with the others in the group.
- Primates are fantastic for capturing expressions and interactions between each other, would strongly suggest spending some time photographing whatever primate you have available to you. And similarly to when doing portraits, try and focus on the eyes.