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  • Writer's picturePhilip Preston

Zoo Photography - Tips For Better Photos.

An adult male lion lifts its head to catch the late afternoon winter sunlight. Copyright Philip Preston photography.

In 2021 I took out annual membership at a local wildlife park for some photo opportunities, as my photography and travel options had become rather limited due to Covid restrictions during the year. Although having little previous experience of animal photography, I had attended an occasional workshop over the years at various zoos and wildlife centres, so didn't consider myself a complete beginner, but still felt like a novice due to my limited experience. After visiting my local wildlife park about 7 or 8 times now, my knowledge and skills have increased a little, and as zoo visits are popular with families and budding photographers, though it might be useful to pass on a few thoughts to others based on my own experiences. Please note this post is not primarily about camera equipment and settings, but more about things to consider when taking photographs, regardless of what equipment is being used.

Have Realistic Expectations Before Your Visit.

Most photographers planning a day out will probably hope to get some nice photographs during their visit, and with a bit of luck even get a few that are a 'bit special'. That's certainly what I hope for on a day out. With zoo and animal photography though, expectations and reality may not always coincide, as animals generally have little interest in you and your photographic aspirations. When you arrive, they may be too far away, partially obscured, facing away from you, or worst of all, not even visible! For these sorts of reasons, I have no specific expectations about what I will photograph during my visits, but instead adopt a 'let's see what happens' approach to my photography. That way, I am less likely to be disappointed with results from my day out, but still hopefully experience the joy and pleasure when things go well.

Some Tips For Better Zoo Photography

The tips listed below are not in any order of priority or importance, but just based on thoughts from my own experience photographing zoo animals.

Cluttered Backgrounds.

One of the most common difficulties photographing zoo animals is that they are located in enclosed spaces with distracting backgrounds, such as wooden or wire fences, buildings, people (both staff and visitors), equipment and direction signs. Sometimes, its possible to exclude these from your photographs by suitable compositions, or zooming in close to the subject if you happen to have a telephoto lens for your camera. Where exclusion is not possible, you can sometimes minimise these distracting details by moving around for a viewpoint that helps mask the background a little. For example, in the tiger photograph below, fencing was visible, but including the tree branches in the composition helped to obscure the background, and focus the attention on the tiger instead. If you have a camera with adjustable lens aperture settings (known a F stops), using a wide aperture, for example, F4, will help reduce the 'depth of field' making the background out of focus compared to the sharp focus of the main subject.

An Amur Tiger catches the late afternoon winter sunlight. Copyright Philip Preston photography.

Get Close As Possible For Nice Portrait Photos

My local wildlife park mostly features large mammals, and subsequently has big enclosures so they can roam around - or hide from visitors! In this situation, its quite likely animals will be some distance away from you if they are visible, so you either have to wait for them to come closer, or preferably have a telephoto lens for your camera that can zoom in to safely get up close. For the lion photograph below, the animal was approximately 40 to 50 feet away (about 12 to 15 metres), but because I was using a 100-400mm lens on my APSC sensor camera (equivalent to 150-600mm on a full frame camera), I was able to get sufficiently close for a nice portrait. Getting close also helps to minimise the issue of cluttered backgrounds as mentioned above.

Portrait of an adult male lion. Copyright Philip Preston photography.

Not everyone will have a large telephoto lens available for their camera, so getting close up photographs like the lion above might be difficult unless the animal happens to be nearby. Therefore, your photographic time might be more productive by concentrating on animals that are more easily accessible, such as small mammals like the Patagonian Mara in the photograph below. At my local wildlife park, these and similar animals live inside an enclosure that visitors can go into, and because the animals are used to humans, chances are you will be able to get very close to them. The Patagonian Mara below was only about 6 feet (2 metres) away from me and sitting quite still, so these type of situations are ideal opportunities to get close up portraits even if you have limited camera equipment available.

The Mara is a rather small mammal even when standing up, so when they are lying down on the ground, its generally better to lower your camera down to their level when taking a photo, giving a nicer side view of their face and body (rather than the top of their head).

If your camera has a flip out screen / viewfinder, these are ideal for low angle shots, and much more comfortable than lying on the ground to get your photo.

When taking these type of close up photos, its worth checking for any distracting things like blades of grass, or twigs and other debris that might either be in front, or very near, the animals face. This might sound like overconcern with detail, but in my opinion, potentially nice photos can be spoilt with things like blades of grass across the animals face where this is avoidable.

Patagonian Mara portrait, copyright Philip Preston photography.

Always Have Your Camera Ready

Sometimes, the opportunity to get a great photo might only be available for a few seconds. If you carry you camera around in a bag and only get it out when you want to take a photo, you may have insufficient time to capture that great moment when it actually arrives. My local wildlife park has a Spotted Hyena enclosure, and I don't see them very often during my visits. On one occasion, while walking towards the park exit, I got to the Hyena enclosure and there in front of me was one of the Hyenas standing facing towards the sun in lovely late afternoon winter light, with the added bonus of a photogenic tree trunk right next to it. It stood in that location and position for about 10 seconds, which was just enough time to switch on my camera, point the lens for a suitable composition, and press the shutter button to capture an image. After taking just one image, it was gone, and the photo opportunity had passed. Usually, I would take at least two photos for a potentially good image (in case one has camera blur or some other technical issue), but luckily, when I got back home and checked the image I was very happy with the result. So during your visit, always have your camera out and ready to capture the moment.

Spotted Hyena in late afternoon winter sunlight. Copyright Philip Preston photography.

Capture Animal Behaviour As Well As Portraits

There are times when you may see animals sitting in the same location for some time and exhibiting different types of behaviours. Often, your intention may be to get a nice portrait photo initially, but also consider getting images showing the animal(s) doing different things such as interacting with each other. The photos below show two Gelada Monkeys (the Alpha male and a subordinate) during a grooming session. The Alpha male has a lot of long body hair and I love the first photo showing the subordinate grooming what appears to be a large round bundle of hair!

A subordinate grooms the Alpha Male Gelada Monkey, copyright Philip Preston photography.

The next photo shows the Geladas reaction when some scuffle broke out among other nearby group members, and the Alpha male turns round with a disapproving stare as his grooming is interrupted. This reaction only lasted two or three seconds but again shows an interesting behaviour worth capturing on camera. I was very lucky that the direction of the scuffle also made the Alpha male turn towards the direction of sunlight beautifully highlighting his stern facial expression and impressive locks of hair. Its worth keeping your eye constantly on the camera viewfinder, even if you have already taken some nice photos, to ensure you are ready to capture any fleeting moment of interest that happens.

An Alpha male Gelada monkey has its grooming interrupted by squabbling nearby group members. Copyright Philip Preston photography.

The final Gelada photo below is another example of grooming behaviour that occurred and nicely compliments the previous two images. All three photos were taken in beautiful low afternoon, high contrast, winter sunlight making for almost perfect lighting conditions. When taking photographs in high contrast light situations, I tend to underexpose my images by about two thirds of an F stop to retain detail in the highlights, while also retaining a bit of detail in shadow areas. If your camera has adjustable exposure settings, you might want to try different settings to get your preferred photo outcomes.

A subordinate grooms the Alpha Male Gelada Monkey, copyright Philip Preston photography.

Difficulties From Backlighting Issues

Sometimes, you might see a nice photo opportunity but the lighting situation is not ideal. Do not be put off by this, as any photo is better than no photo. In the photograph below, the male lion was standing up looking alert and towards my direction. However, the position of the sun was almost directly behind the lions head, so not ideal. If your camera has a built in light meter, pointing it towards the sun might cause it to give a meter reading that underexposes the image, making it look too dark. In these type of situations, I tend to compensate for this type of setting and overexpose the meter reading by about two thirds of an F stop, giving more light in the shadow areas (in this example, the lions face) while still retaining some details in the highlight areas (in this example, the sky and parts of the lions mane in direct sunlight). In general, my preference is for front or side lighting on the subject, but any type of lighting can give opportunities for successful photographs, and backlighting can be ideal for 'rim lighting' effects that outline the subjects shape with the rest of the image captured as a silhouette.

Portrait of an adult male lion with backlighting. Copyright Philip Preston photography.

Use Features Like Water And Rocks To Enhance Your Compositions

A Lechwe antelope drinks water from a pond. Copyright Philip Preston photography.

When animals are located in large grass covered enclosures, its easy to end up with photos that look a bit bland if photographing the whole animal and they are just standing still. For this Lechwe antelope, I took my photos when the animal was drinking from a pond, with the reflection in the water adding further visual interest to the composition. Further visual variety was added to the photo by incorporating a rock in the foreground. There may of course be no option to include water or rocks if none are near to the subject, in these situations, try looking for things like tall grass in the foreground that could be used for visual interest. Even weeds in the foreground can add visual interest if they are blurred and lead the eye towards the main subject of the photograph.

A similar strategy using nearby objects of visual interest was used for this photograph of a Polar Bear cub, when it temporarily sat down next to a tree log

Incorporating Surroundings With The Subject

Tigers are one of my favourite animals (although I would never wish to unexpectedly meet one face to face!), and regardless of their size, seem to share similar characteristics, even with domesticated cats. This Amur Tiger was lying on the ground, possibly looking at another tiger in the adjacent enclosure. While the surrounding features of the location are not particularly interesting by themselves, I wanted to include them for this photo as they seemed to help show a cats preference for being 'half hidden', obscured by the tree trunk and nearby plants. Almost like waiting for some unsuspecting prey to wander by and be ambushed for the next meal. So, although things like trees and plants may not be of great interest compared to the main subject, if they help convey some aspect of the behaviour of the animal being photographed, then do include them in your compositions.

An Amur Tiger watches for prey. Copyright Philip Preston photography.

The photograph below shows the same tiger after it had stood up and moved forward in its enclosure. The surrounding plants and grasses help merge the animal in with its environment creating an almost soft feathered effect that add a nice visual quality to the composition. Imagine the same type of photograph but with ugly twigs and branches in front of the animal, not quite so nice as this example. For this reason alone, its worth taking a number of different images at the time as some will probably be better than others.

An Amur Tiger watches for prey. Copyright Philip Preston photography.

Fast Moving Subjects Difficult To Photograph

My local wildlife park introduced a Californian Sea Lion enclosure in 2021 adding another photo opportunity for days out. However, my initial attempts at photographing them moving in water has been quite a challenge in terms of getting a good composition that's both sharp and good quality. My solution, so far, is to photograph them when not swimming! Seals move quickly when in water and only seem come to the surface briefly to breath in air, so its tricky knowing where their heads will surface and where to point your camera lens. When out of the water on rocks, they still move around shaking their heads, but at least you know where to point the camera! If you have any good tips for photographing sea lions, feel free to let me know. In the meantime I will continue to practice with them and ultimately progress from stationary to swimming photos.

Californian Sea Lions look at each other while sitting on rocks. Copyright Philip Preston photography.

Avoid Including The Sky In Your Photos

This is not something I would always recommend for animal photos, but sometimes, excluding the sky from a composition can be helpful. In the photograph below, the lion was some distance away from me and slightly elevated on some raised earth, making it easy to end up with part of the sky in my composition. By excluding the sky from the photo, the trees behind the lion make a nice uniform textured out of focus backdrop edge, drawing the viewers eye more easily to the main subject in the image. If you are in this situation, try taking two photos, one including the sky, and one excluding the sky, then see which you prefer. My guess is that it will be the latter. Of course, if the sky happened to be a fantastic sunset with beautiful clouds and colours in it, then think about including the sky! But if its grey, dull and boring, then no sky is better in my opinion.

An adult male lion yawns while resting on the ground. Copyright Philip Preston photography.

Concluding Summary

Have realistic expectations about what you might achieve before reaching your destination. Any photo is better than no photo, so always take something, even if not perfect, but remember, sometimes it's fine just to watch and enjoy.

If possible, avoid cluttered backgrounds from your photos, or try to minimise their appearance by moving to a better composition viewpoint.

Get nice and close for portrait photos. If that's not possible, find easier subjects where you can get close up. Watch out for details when shooting close, avoid including bits of foliage that cover parts of the animals face.

Always have your camera ready, if you have 5 seconds to get that once in a lifetime photo, its no good if your camera is in its bag.

Capture interesting animal behaviours, as well as portraits. Get variety, not just pretty photos.

Look for, and be aware of, the light in your photos, and watch out for tricky lighting situations that might cause problems getting the best quality photos.

Incorporate features like rocks, water and logs in your photos if these are available, or anything else that can enhance the visual interest of your photographic compositions, or helps convey an aspect of the animals behaviour (like hiding from prey).

Find situations and animals that are difficult to photograph, then practice your technique for these to getter better photos.

Sometimes, excluding the skyline from your compositions is a good idea, but not always!


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