Unfortunately, photographing in a zoo has a negative connotation for many photographers. While there is a question of ethics involved (see box), be assured that there is absolutely nothing wrong photographing animals and birds in a zoo. If you take proper care (read on for this) you can get photographs of wild animals and birds which look as if they are in their natural habitat. A zoo is the only place where you can have access to photograph, in relative comfort, a wide variety of animals and yes, exotic birds in one location conveniently. It is also an ideal place to perfect your skills before you embark on that once in a life time photo safari trip to Africa.
Though the behavior of animals is undoubtedly very different in the wild compared to how they behave in captivity, a zoo is still a great place to hone your skills in handling telephoto lenses. It will also help you to improve your reflexes and teaches you the most important virtue of photography – patience.
A few basic rules that you should follow in the zoo
1. Remember that a Zoo is a public place and several visitors will be there along with you. They have as much right as you have to enjoy a visit to the zoo. It is necessary that your photography causes least amount of inconvenience to others.
2. Do not disturb animals by offering food or throwing things at them to attract their attention.
3. A strict no – no is teasing animals. Please do not irritate animals under any circumstances just to get a photograph.
4. Strictly obey the rules that are in force in the zoo.
5. Most importantly do not get yourself in harm’s way by doing things like sticking a lens or putting your hand through a fence or wire-mesh, entering into a moat, etc. It is always safety first.
Open and Closed Zoos: Earlier most animals were caged and hence were difficult to photograph. Also, the surroundings would be very unnatural. Modern zoos however, have open animal pens and these allow much easier access to photography and also present a much better environment. Still, there are few precautions that you need to take as you will see shortly.
Safaris: Many zoos offer what are called safaris where you are taken around in a closed vehicle into an area where the wild life is roaming unrestricted. While in concept this is excellent, it provides few good opportunities for photography. The first is that you are severely constrained in a vehicle and since you are not in control, where to stop and for how long is not in your hands. While you can give safaris a try, I am inclined to say that they are not the best for photography.
Aviaries: All zoos have aviaries with varying degree of photographic access to birds. Most of these restrict you to stand outside the enclosure and take photographs. This can rob you of some good opportunities as you will be quite far if the enclosure is very large. However, modern aviaries have huge enclosures (some several hundred feet in height), where you can go inside and then photograph birds which are quite freely flying inside. This will give you many more opportunities to capture some “bird in flight images” as well as allow you to get close up photographs of the birds. The latter is very difficult in the open unless you have telephoto lenses with more than 500mm in focal length or take the trouble of building a blind and wait patiently.
Special factors to consider when photographing in the zoo:
Avoiding wire-mesh: Most birds and some of the animals (unless it is a totally open zoo) will be behind wire-mesh. This is really not a problem though it might seem so. Just keep your telephoto lens touching the wire-mesh (conditions permitting). The wire-mesh will simply not appear in the final picture. If you are using an autofocus camera, just make sure that the camera does not focus on the wire-mesh. Use a lens hood to prevent lens from getting scratched and damaged by the wire-mesh. A rubber lens hood is preferable here as it will not get damaged when touching the wire-mesh.
Another problem you will often face is the light reflecting from the wire-mesh most of which are quite reflective. A hood is again the solution as when kept close to the wire-mesh, it blocks unwanted light that is being reflected from the wire-mesh from being captured.
People: A zoo is a public place and will be full of people who have as much right as you have to see the animals. Though you can politely ask them to move a bit if they are standing between your camera and the animal, this is always not possible. Be a little patient till they move on by themselves. A more serious problem is when they appear in the image (mostly in the background). This will definitely give the photograph “taken in the zoo” label instantly! Here, either you have to wait till they move away or follow a few techniques which are described in the next section.
Distracting and manmade objects: The most bothersome issue while photographing in the zoo are the manmade objects that may appear in the background. If this happens, change your position and angle so that they do not appear in the photograph. If this is not possible try to throw them out of focus by using a larger aperture (small f number).
Keeping an eye on the background to eliminate unwanted clutter and objects is a good practice, whenever or whatever you are photographing as, in the excitement, we tend to concentrate on the subject and ignore the background. A bad background can ruin an otherwise excellent photograph.
Techniques when shooting with telephoto lenses to get that sharp image:While handling and use of telephoto lenses was dealt extensively earlier (see “Basics of Photography” – Smart Photography, Nov, 2010 issue) here is a quick recap to help you to get sharp images.
You must have read the thumb rule that when handholding a telephoto lens, you should use a shutter speed of 1/focal length or faster. That is, if you are using a 200 mm lens then you should use a shutter speed of 1/200 sec or faster. However, this guideline was framed for the 35 mm format. Now that we have digital cameras with sensors of various sizes, the thumb rule should be modified as – shutter speed should be at least 1/ (35 mm equivalent focal length). So if you are using a 200 mm lens on an APS-C format DSLR, you should use a shutter speed of at least 1/300 sec. Remember this is just a rule of thumb. You can photograph at slower speeds if you practice. This is where trips to the zoo can come in handy in improving your skills.
Using a monopod can give you up to a two stop shutter speed advantage. That is, instead of using a speed of 1/250 sec, you will be able to manage with 1/60 sec. Again practice will help you improve on this. When using a monopod keep both your legs slightly apart and lean forward on the monopod while inclining the monopod towards you. This means that your two legs along with the monopod will from a sort of a tripod. Just make sure not to put too much weight on the monopod.
Zoo enclosures are mostly shaded and hence the light levels will be low. Plus you will need fast shutter speeds as just explained. Mostly lenses with focal lengths of 300mm and more will be slow (f/5.6 or slower unless you want to spend huge sums of money) aggravating the problem. Fortunately, most new DSLR cameras have superb high ISO performance (you can go well over ISO rating of 1000) and still get excellent picture quality. So, don’t hesitate to exploit this feature. However, it is always best to keep the ISO to the minimum value that gives you the shutter speed you want for the best image quality. Auto ISO feature present in most modern DSLRs automatically takes care of this – that is depending on the light, the camera will automatically set the minimum ISO that is needed to get the shutter speed you selected. Check your camera manual as this is an often neglected feature that works wonders!
If you are photographing hand held, keep your two feet slightly apart with left foot slightly forward. The elbows should be close to each other. The right hand should hold the camera and the left hand should be under the lens supporting it. Since most tele lenses are heavy, supporting them with your left hand also has the additional benefit of relieving the stress on the camera mount.
Inhale fully, exhale a little bit and press the shutter release gently.
Bracing also helps. If you have a nearby tree or a pole, leaning against it will steady the camera.
A few more tips:
· Be on the lookout for antics by animals as they make humorous photographs. Animals can also be very expressive and capturing these expressions can give you everlasting memories.
· Use fill flash to open up shadows and to add a touch of catch light (sparkle) in the eyes of the animals as otherwise the eyes, which are normally the center of attraction, will look dull and life less. In worst case they could look like empty dark sockets. Your camera’s built in flash can do this job as you don’t need a very powerful flash for this purpose. However, make sure that the flash is not reflecting off the wire-mesh. If this is happening you need to use an off camera flash.
· Don’t go to a zoo on holidays to photograph. It will be full of people who can be distracting and also cause hindrance when you are photographing.
· Look out for expression of people especially children who are often fascinated by the animals and as a result put out some very nice expressions. These can give you excellent candid pictures.
What you will need:
Camera: A D-SLR or a bridge (prosumer) digital camera. If you are using the latter
be aware of the slow shutter release response and slow auto focus.
Lens: You need a lens of focal length of at least 300 mm (35 mm equivalent) or
more. This means you can use a D-SLR with a lens of at least 200 mm focal
length (assuming your SLR is using an APS-C sized sensor which has a cropping
factor of around 1.5). This gives the same angle of view as a 300mm lens on a 35
If you are using a bridge (prosumer) digital camera, use one that has a lens that
gives you angle of view of a 300mm on a 35mm camera.
A tripod or a monopod: One of these is always recommended when using
telephoto lenses, preferably the former for absolute stability and sharpness of
image. However, a zoo is a public place and a tripod can cause problems for
others. So, a monopod would be a better solution in a zoo. It is a lot less
cumbersome too. If you have neither of these, Smart Photography, has a low cost
solution for you (see box “Make your own stabilized lens!).
All the pictures shown in this article were taken in a zoo. Note that in all cases
careful attention was paid to the background so that the animals and birds look as
if they have been photographed in their natural habitat. The Author is a strong
believer that photography must be fun. So, plan a one day trip to the zoo with your
family to make it a photo trip plus a picnic. That will involve your family in your
favorite hobby and might just get your spouse agree to the purchase of that fabulous stabilized lens you always wanted to buy!