If you can’t venture to places where wildlife roam, you can still get some great shots at the local zoo by following these tips from Russ Burden. But never give up on your dream to go on a safari!
Lenses: Bring your longest lens and a macro. The long lens can be used to try and fill the frame with the subject. It can also be used to throw foreground bars out of focus when placing the lens right up to the bars and shooting with a wide open aperture. The macro comes in handy for the smaller animals residing in the indoor exhibits behind glass. If zoo rules allow you to get right up to the glass, press the lens against it to eliminate as many reflections and as much glare as possible. The closer the subject is to the glass, the better it allows you to fill the frame. Be sure to shoot in RAW as the image will take on the color of the glass. By shooting in RAW, this cast can be corrected more efficiently using Adobe® Photoshop® or another RAW editor of your choice.
Tripod: Most zoos don’t have tripod restrictions for shooting outside exhibits, but they may set limitations for the indoor exhibits. Before heading out, check into this. A monopod may prove to be a good alternate. The tripod not only helps stabilize the lens, it also keeps your arms from getting overtired while waiting for the animal to display behavior.
Settings: Pump up the ISO to 400 to obtain a high shutter speed to freeze the motion of a subject. If the animal is absolutely still and you’re using a tripod, use a lower ISO setting to get better quality. If the light levels drop and you need to go above 400, do so and use noise-reducing software to get a smoother image. With regards to aperture, if you need to defocus a foreground fence, place the lens right up to it and shoot as wide open as possible. In other situations, if you need a good amount of depth of field, adjust the aperture so the corresponding shutter speed is still fast enough to freeze the movement of the animal.
Be Patient and Ready: As with photographing any animal, it’s often better to wait for it to do something interesting or to display emotion. The resulting image will be more intriguing than just a recording of the subject lying down in its cage. Research the feeding times. Animals tend to be more active in the hour or so before they’re fed. Be patient and you’ll be rewarded.
Go Back: Revisit the exhibits at different times of the day, as each time nets different lighting angles. If the zoo is open late, note which exhibits get bathed in sunset light and make it a point to be there to take advantage of the sweet light. Try different times of the year. If you live in a cold-weather climate, go right after a fresh snow and head to the polar bear, arctic fox, or bighorn sheep exhibit.