How to take decent photographs at the zoo or the safari park
You'd think that taking pictures of captive animals would be easy, however it is not. The zoo or the safari park presents challenges that all photographers must face in order to get decent images. This article explores those challenges and provides advice on how to overcome these.
How to take decent photographs at the zoo or the safari park
A zoo or safari park offers photographers a cheap and easy way of getting shots of many different types of animals, from all over the world, without having to spend hours in the field stalking them. All things considered, taking professional quality images of animals at a zoo or safari park should be simple right? Well, it can be quite a challenge, and even though the animals are tame and in a confined space there are other challenges the photographer must overcome in order to get the image.
People, i.e. other visitors, are a major challenge when taking photos of animals at a zoo or safari park, especially during peak periods such as school and summer holidays. The general hustle and bustle of young children running around and angry parents shouting in an attempt to control them, people barging their way around etc. is all part and parcel of taking pictures at public places, but it is still a major annoyance when trying to snap some good shots. Arguably, having to battle to get a good viewing and photo taking spot is the largest annoyance, but it is possible.
The key is to be patient and bide your time and you will get to the prime spot eventually. Remember that the other visitors have also paid their entrance fees and have just as much right to be there as you. Patience in photography is a key element that many photographers seem to forget. Taking time to step back allows you to look at the subject, look at the lighting and think about composition and how to take the shot. In addition, it allows you to make sure the camera is set up correctly to get the best exposure for the conditions. Many photographers are so keen to get in and get snapping away that vital checks are missed and their images suffer as a result.
When walking around the zoo or safari park your equipment is at risk of being banged or knocked in to by other visitors, therefore it is advisable to keep all accessories in a rucksack that is carried on your back. The camera will obviously be carried on a should or neck strap (no photographer wants to miss any candid or opportunity shots after all) and it is important to keep a hand on the lens or camera body and shield the equipment with an arm.
Safety fences, cages, tanks and holding units
All animals are fenced in and whether they are behind bars, wire mesh or a sheet of plastic or Perspex these materials are a hurdle that all photographers face when taking pictures of animals.
When dealing with small bars or wire mesh it is possible to take an image that excludes the bars or mesh, even though it can be seen by the naked eye. By using a wide lens aperture, such as F5.6 or smaller, it is possible to blur out the bars or mesh. However, in order to this to work there has to be a fair amount of distance between the animal and the bars or mesh. So, if for example, you are photographing a monkey if it is sat right up against the safety fence it will appear in the image. If the monkey is sitting, say 3 metres behind the safety fence, the bars or mesh will not be visible in the image.
Using a wide aperture is not always ideal, especially when a deep depth of field is required but a compromise will have to be made in these circumstances. Using a wide aperture hence creating a shallow depth of field will mean that focusing has to be spot on to get the best image. A good trick is to focus on the eyes of the animal and get them as sharp as possible since this brings ‘life’ to the image, whereas soft and slightly out of focus eyes do not.
Holding tanks and Perspex provides a different challenge in the form of reflections. Light bouncing of the plastic creating reflections are likely to be picked up by the camera, which will ruin the image. In order to overcome this it is important to get the front of the lens as close to the plastic as possible and shield the front of the lens with a lens hood. The best type are made out of rubber (and look like a small plunger) since these can be placed right up against the plastic and suckered on significantly reducing the amount of light between the lens and the plastic. A plastic lens hood will also work but, in reality, these aren’t quite as good as the rubber type. If you do not have a lens hood the best solution is to shield the front of the lens with a hand, arm, piece of paper/card or whatever else is at hand.
Using a flash
A flash gun is an invaluable piece of kit that should be carried at all times, even during bright and sunny periods. Whilst many images can be taken without a flash there are times when a fill in flash is needed to bring out the details of back lit subjects.
Many photographers may consider a flash a waste of time for nature photography, but since the animals are confined and not too far away, they are often well in range for a flash so it can be used to good effect in fill in mode. Flashes are also useful for dark enclosures, such as monkey and reptile houses and other areas when there is little ambient light.
Before firing off a flash check with the zoo or safari park that flash photography is permitted. If flash photography is permitted remember to put the welfare of the animals first. If you take a shot and it frightens the animals or makes them behave in a strange way remove the flash from the camera (or turn it off if using a built in flash), put it away and don’t use it.
Overall, it can be a real challenge to get some professional looking animal images at zoos and safari parks but with some planning, thinking about the shot, patience, perseverance and common sense it is possible, which can be very rewarding, especially when there is no evidence in the final image that the animal is in captivity. When photographing animals, always put the welfare of the animal first. If the animal appears distressed or its behaviour changes stop taking pictures, enjoy just looking at the animal and move on, and always remember to abide by the rules of the zoo or safari park.