Can You Really Make Zoo Photos Look Like Wildlife Shots?

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Animal photographs are inherent crowd-pleasers that elicit emotional responses.  Of course, not everyone can hop on a plane to head deep into a rainforest, a savannah or a jungle to capture exotic creatures.  What you can do though, is head to a zoo.  While it's inherently not a “natural” environment for animals, there are several techniques you can use to capture wildlifestyle photographs. These shooting tips will help you achieve that.

1. Plan ahead. Find zoos where animals are displayed in their natural habitat and where there is a large selection of “wildlife”.  Once you determine which zoo works best for your purposes, familiarize yourself with the animals they display and research their environment.  Developing an understanding of the animals you want to photograph is crucial, because it helps you compose your photos most effectively.

2. Backgrounds can give you away. Work out angles that capture just the animals rather than the zoo.  Usually getting down low is your best option, since the fences and gates that keep the animals corralled can limit your photographic angles.  Here, clean and solid backgrounds are ideal.  If you can’t find a viable background, use depth of field to ensure that only the animal is in focus.

3. Telephoto lens. Most zoos keep you at a distance from the animals, so use a telephoto lens to zoom into your subject.  Using a higher focal length allows you to move in tight on your subject and capture the essence of the animal’s personality.

Photo by JoyTek

4. Avoid reflections. Many zoos force you to photograph through glass, which means you have to battle with light reflections. To get rid of those pesky reflections don’t use a flash. You can also get rid of the reflection by carefully pressing your lens against the glass, as this will limit light coming in from the side. If reflections are still visible, use your hand to shield the side of your lens from the source of the reflection. A polarizing filter is another viable option.

5. Patience is key. Painstaking patience is the key to making your photographs reach their fullest potential.  Images can almost always be improved by staying with the subject longer. Playing the waiting game is what makes it possible for you to catch those rare and intriguing moments of primal behavior that will pay off as better shots in the end.

Photo by Jason Puddephatt

6. Consider motion blur. Once you’ve figured out a way to get around the fences and glass at zoos, use motion blur when animals move to add energy and engagement to your shots.

7. Frame your shots carefully. Beware of people and fences as they both detract from your main purpose – taking the most engaging shots of animals.  Work out the best angles for your images and keep your framing simple by including only the animals.

8. Get there early. For the most part, in the early morning the light tends to be better as the saturation on your canvas becomes richer.  Also, the earlier you get there, the less people are likely to be about distracting the animals and interfering with your shots.

9. It's not always just about the animals. Zoos are also a great place for portraits (such as a young boy staring at his favorite animal through a glass panel).

Photo by JoyTek

Zoos are the perfect place to get your fill of wildlife photography close to home, allowing you to get beautiful photographs of animals without ever worrying that they are going somewhere.

Chase Guttman is an award-winning photographer and a regular writer for Light Stalking. Check out his site or visit his photo tips blog.

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Chase Guttman is an award-winning travel photographer, whose love for travel and adventure has allowed him to photograph his experiences in over 40 countries. You can reach him on his website.

Sound advice. The key is to get your camera to focus through the bars with such an effect that they’re no longer there.

That and an awesome telephoto.

Great advice! I love going to the Zoo and trying to do this. I have a few gorilla shots up on my site.

(scroll down about half way).

Here’s my fav:

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