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How To - Photography at the Zoo!

Discussion in 'Animal Photography' started by overread, 11 Dec 2015.

  1. overread

    overread Well-Known Member

    9 Dec 2015
    What follows is an article with advice on how to do zoo photography. I've focused more on methods and ideas specific to the zoo and left out general "how to" do photography. I might edit and extend this as ideas and thoughts are raised.

    Please do ask questions or add your own insights into zoo photography and methods/ideas/concepts you've found work for you!

    1) Many animals are most active during the early and late parts of the day, with the middle often being the most lethargic. However many zoos often open later and, especially during summer, the dawn might be hours past by the time you get through the door. This is a limitation one has to work with; however sometimes you can arrange earlier access if you talk to keepers/workers at the zoo, since staff are often on-site much earlier than the doors open. However it should be noted that this is generally more possible at small establishments; larger setups tend to have a more complex authority structure and its often harder to talk to those in a position of power; furthermore they tend to also be more tied by red-tape and company polices. But if you don't try you'll never know.

    2) Try to avoid family/friend groups. Ok this sounds harsh, but in general if you go to the zoo for photography and you take others not doing photography they will get bored very fast. Many people want to walk the zoo and see as much as they can, sitting by a pen for half an hour - an hour - two hours is just not interesting to them (esp when they've not got a camera in their hands to entertain them). Generally you want to go with people who will be able to do go their own thing and leave you to yours or go alone so that you can focus on what you're doing rather than focusing on them.

    3) Plan your trip, get a hold of the map and plan out what you'd like to see. Keep an eye on things like feeding, talks and events as often animals will be more active when there are events/food involving them. If these events are regular many animals will already be becoming more animated near to the time so getting there a little before not only means you can pick a good spot before others arrive; but that you might also get a few neat shots before things kick off.

    4) Walk around the enclosures. Sometimes its easy to roll up and think you've got the best angle; but don't trust that. Walk around the pens, take a few shots and try some different angles. Experiment as you might find that there are some neat compositions or possibilities in different areas of the pen. If you frequent the zoo often (or plan to) then getting a few ideas can help on further trips when the animals might be in different positions.

    5) Bars/cages. Remember that choosing what you do and don't show in a photo is your choice; but that you do not have to make "every shot look like it was taken in the wild"*. So take things as they are; sometimes you can get some very emotive shots when including the bars/cage.

    6) Spend time at an enclosure. Animals will never show their best to you in the first 5 seconds you're at a pen. You want to wait and see what transpires. Events/feeding are already mentioned, but animals will do things on their own and sometimes just being patient and waiting will let you capture shots that others will walk past without realising. This is where planning also comes into things, in general if you're focusing on photography you don't want to be seeing lots of animals all in one trip; you want to focus a little on a few to maximise your chances of a good shot (although again this depends - if you're only going to the zoo once you might be more inclined to wander and see more different species).

    7) Talk to the keepers. So long as they are not run off their feet many will be more than happy to talk about the animals under their care. You might find out new facts or information on how they are kept and keepers might also know good times to see the animals in action.

    8) Don't forget the natives. Many small birds and other wildlife can hang around zoos; so don't forget that sometimes they can make some fantastic opportunities for photos. An ideal way to fill your lunch time whilst sitting in the cafe.

    9) Don't bang on the glass/make noises/wave your arms like a nutter. In general most zoo animals have been there, seen it and eaten the t-shirt. Most ways to draw their attention will not work and the few that do are likely only the result of increased stress, not a thing one wants to encourage nor promote. If you want them to respond wait or attend at a feeding time. Talk to the keepers too as they might know a few ways to induce a reaction without causing harm/stress to the animals.
    Remember for some animals the distraction that causes annoyance can be your camera - so again keep an eye on how the animal is reacting to you being there and taking photos. Sometimes you have to put the camera down - its rare and normally would be marked on the pens if there are special considerations.

    10) Consider the day of the week to visit carefully if you can as well. It's not just avoiding bad weather, but also heavy crowds. In general holiday periods are going to be busier and weekends even more so. Meanwhile the start of the working week can be a lot quieter and even more so during typical school term times. Off seasons such as those moving into and out of winter can also show reduced visitor numbers; however some zoos will also wind down events through the day and reduce their opening hours as well.

    11) Consider the message your photo is sending. This is a general tip for photography, but one I think worth reminding for zoos. Photography allows you to tell stories through your photos and how you compose and at what moment you take them and by what you do and don't show you can vary the story significantly. Sometimes this means that you can make an animal look, in different photos, both joyful and sad - healthy and unhealthy.
    I am not in any way preaching, merely reminding you to consider the message your photo says and that sometimes you might wish to post a note to where its shown to the world to expand upon what isn't shown in the photo.

    Photography tricks/methods:

    1) Bars/wire. Bars and wire can be a nightmare in photos. In general to remove them before they affect your photos you want to do two things:
    a) Get as close to them as you possibly can. Right up to them if you can.

    b) If your camera allows it use as wide an aperture (smallest f number) that you can; this will again reduce their impact on your resulting photos.

    Some animals will be near impossible to get up close to the bars; big cats are often behind two sets of railings and wire cage.

    2) Many enclosures will have glass viewing points not just wire. Where you encounter glass there are a few things to keep in mind:

    a) Take a cloth because some will be dirty from fingers and the elements. Granted you can't clean the animal side, but sometimes wiping away the smudges of fingers and rain smears is worth the 5 seconds it takes.

    b) Reflections are a pain. You can counter them with a few choice methods, including:
    1) Move the camera/lens right up the glass. This reduces the angles at which reflections get to land on the glass; you're basically shading it with the camera. A rubber lens hood (oft sold on ebay) can be a wonder for this as you can press those right up to the glass and form a seal around which stray light from behind you can't reach the glass at all; and thus cannot reflect.

    2) Take a sheet of black paper with a hole cut for your lens. Yes this might sound daft; but its again acting like the hood mentioned above; you're shadowing the glass and thus preventing light reaching it to reflect off it.

    3) A circular polarizer can be used to remove reflections from non-metallic reflective surfaces and you can use it on glass to good effect. It will, however, take around 1 to 2 stops of light in the process (amount varies from filter to filter); but since reflections will be the biggest problem in brighter weather that limit should't be too restrictive.

    What gear?
    What gear you should or can take depends a lot upon your own personal situation and upon the site itself. So this question can be a hard one to answer in general terms. I will say that just because a zoo brings animals closer than in the wild than you might otherwise get, this does not mean that long lenses do not have a place at the zoo.
    Whilst I would say that you could do well with a 70-200mm lens for a whole day you might find some situations where the animals hang back or where you're held back further from them. In such cases or to allow you to remove distracting surrounding elements you might find at a longer focal length is needed.
    So part of this is to take your gear and see what works for you; what you want to use. You might want to include bars and enclosure and all; even the people watching and thus you might want 35mm or 50mm lenses. Be prepared to experiment and take your time; try out different things. If you do have a DSLR try not to take too much the first few times; being lumbered down with gear can be as restricting as having too little. The more you go out and the more you do the more you will find what works for you; furthermore you will also find time when pre-planning and having visited a site before will already tell you what you need to put in the bag to take.

    Remember that whilst I spoke of lenses just now, point and shoot cameras are most certainly useful and often remove the need to have to choose what to bring as you just bring the camera; since many will have considerable zoom ranges.

    Tripods and monopods are also of great help; a monopod is generally easy to carry and cheaper than a tripod and more than enough to take some strain whilst moving around the site. If you want to pause for a long while in some spots then a tripod can be a better option; although do be aware of your surroundings; a busy day might well have too many people around to justify using a tripod; or might restrict the areas you can practically shoot from. And remember if a member of staff asks you to put it away/move on then do so.

    1) As far as I'm aware flash should have no harmful effects upon most animals at the zoo; a flash is a split-second of light akin to a reflection of the sun off water or lightning; perfectly natural spot light sources in the wild.
    Thus flash can most certainly be used at most zoos with the following considerations:
    a) Many nocturnal animals are more sensitive to flash-light and thus whilst it might not harm them it can induce increased stress. Typically enclosures for these animals will already have "no flash photography" signs up as a reminder.

    b) Some animals will show a personal variation in how they respond to flash; most animals ignore it; however some might react with increased stress as a result. Any animal marked as "do not use flash" should be adhered to and any animal which appears to be showing increased signs of stress whilst being photographed with flash should tell you to turn it off.

    c) Glass will create odd/increased reflections if you use flash at the same time; so keep in mind the points about blocking light reaching the glass surface that you're shooting through (mentioned above).

    2) A bare flash light is a very small light source relative to the subject. Small light sources relative to the subject result in harsher light that will create sharper shadow lines. If you use a small softbox (for speedlite flashes there are a range such as the Lumiquest Softbox); or even a sheet of paper held in front of the flash, this will increase the area of the light source relative to the subject and thus soften the light.

    3) Even in good light a flash is handy to have; indeed strong overhead light (such as during midday on a bright day) can result in very deep shadows which can hide the eyes and other areas of body and face. Thus flash is very handy in its capacity to provide "fill flash" or "fill light" whereby its used on a modest power setting to boost the light in the scene into those shadowed areas. So yes even on a sunny day the flash is important.

    Editing: Remember that with editing the limits of what is too much are your own to draw and decide upon. You might choose to do very little or a lot; neither approach is more correct nor true than the other. The big key is to be honest with your work and if people ask do not try to hide what you've done.

    1) Where you've had wire/bars in the shot even if you've followed previous advice to try and reduce/remove their effect you might still see areas of reduced contrast and a slight white "haze" to them where the wire was. This effect can be removed if you increase the contrast in your editing software.
    Ideally what you want to do is increase the contrast selectively to the areas affected (most commonly using a layer-mask). By increasing the contrast you can hide the effect and restore the natural vibrancy to the shot. Note that this is one of those methods where you can have to play around with it a bit and vary the amounts to get what you want and that, sometimes, it just won't work.

    2) Cropping is not evil. Getting it right in camera is a mantra many quote without full realisation of its meaning. Sometimes getting it right in camera only means that you do the best with what you've got at the time and that you take the shot knowing that you will have to change things in editing. By all means use cropping to allow you to remove elements which might be distracting or to overall enhance the photo.

    *especially as the more worldly knowledgeable will be able to tell instantly as many animals will be surrounded by the wrong flora.
    Last edited: 12 Dec 2015
  2. gentle lemur

    gentle lemur Well-Known Member

    8 Sep 2007
    South Devon
    Very sound advice. Perhaps I can add one or two points which may help.
    The rubber lens hood technique for shooting through glass is a very good one - I have been known to reinforce a rather flimsy hood with plastic tape to make it more rigid, because this helps to support the lens which allows much slower shutter speeds than ordinary hand holding - it's cheap image stabilisation. Always try to keep the camera perpendicular to the glass (on the normal as physicists say), because shooting at an angle degrades and distorts the image by refraction.
    If you have to take photos through mesh, black or dark coloured mesh shows up much less than other colours. In bright sunlight, I always look for a section of the mesh that is in shadow, for the same reason.
    When planning your visit, try to visit the reptiles and amphibians early in the day. Then if you get the chance to go back later, the specimens that were not posing well on your first visit will have had time to move into better positions.
    Finally if you are wondering whether it's worth trying for a photo, stop thinking and go for it! As vogelcommando wrote in the 'lost species' thread, it's the photos that you didn't take that you regret. It's much better to try and fail than to fail to try - because sometimes you will surprise yourself with a successful shot :)

  3. overread

    overread Well-Known Member

    9 Dec 2015
    My thanks and yes, especially in this digital era its far better to take a shot than to not. In general I'd always say ones want to have more memory cards than one typically fills up on a shoot so that you've always got a little leeway to over-shoot so you don't have to worry about it.

    Of course some like to have a high - keeper rate - of shots; but I'd say its a good thing to aim to improve; but that sometimes you want to chance it. That it should not dominate your work otherwise you end up focusing a little too much on limiting your shots. That can mean you take "more" keepers compared to waste shots, but at the same time it will likely mean that you're taking more keepers in similar situations to what you're used too and not branching out to expand your horizons or taking a chance with something new or just different.
  4. savethelephant

    savethelephant Well-Known Member

    12 Jan 2015
    New York
    I was wondering what you would recommend if no flash at all is allowed but you wish to take pics of say a galago which is very sensitive but also very jumpy.
  5. RetiredToTheZoo

    RetiredToTheZoo Well-Known Member

    25 Jun 2015
    Mid South, USA
    Very good advice! A few thoughts to add from my own experience. I second the rubber lens hood and have also found a circular polarizing filter to be very useful when dealing with reflections. If your goal is to get high quality "artistic" shots, then having a plan and going by yourself is extremely important. You must have a great deal of patience and be willing to spend a hour or two at one exhibit to get the "right" shot. This is hard to do with family and friends present. One last thought. IT'S ALL ABOUT THE EYES. The animal's eyes have to be in sharp focus and either looking at you or leading you to something interesting. I prefer using manual focus so the eyes are crystal clear.
  6. overread

    overread Well-Known Member

    9 Dec 2015
    Sorry about the late reply.
    If you can't boost the light levels then your only choices are:
    1) Raise the ISO higher - as high as you need to go. Yep you'll get noise in your shot, but it means that you get the shutter speed you need and the exposure. Remember, of course, to use a wider aperture too (smaller f number). For an indoor enclosure for some darker species this might be where something like a 50mm f1.8 lens or similar might actually be beneficial.
    You might not shoot at f1.8 (razor thin depth of field) but you'd have more light for the AF and more potential range of light to let in. You might have to crop the shot more, which is not ideal, but given the situation more practical.

    Photography, especially composition and content, is full of rules and theories. Most you can learn how they work and then "break" them (which normally means you're just following a different theory). However eyes in focus is one of the VERY hard to "break" rules with wildlife. Certainly I agree that in most cases this is going to be what you go for.
    This sometimes means picking a lead animal in a group to focus the shot upon; to get their eyes in focus and let the rest land where they will.

    Most of the time the only time I see eyes not in focus is when the photographer has gone for something like a fur/skin/scale pattern photo and thus more abstract and where the eyes are not in the frame.

    Auto vs manual focus is always a case of preferences. I would say that modern DSLRs are harder manually than older cameras as there are no viewfinder aids (barring the red blip of the AF sensor) to say if you are or are not in focus (although you can get some 3rd party customisable add-in mods for this). They also tend to be smaller viewfinders so less easy to see.
    That said I use back-button AF on my DSLR so that the back button on the camera activates the AF not the half-press of the shutter. When coupled with lenses which have full-time manual focusing (the focusing wheel always changes the focus even if the lens is set to auto focus) then it means you can effortlessly shift into manual focus without having to find the switch on the lens to change modes. That's because you just don't press the back-button and the AF doesn't engage - whilst in regular half-press of the shutter mode as soon as you go to take the shot the AF will kick in which could mess up the shot.