Photographing Zoo Animals

Professional wildlife photographers have it easy. Long lenses, fancy cameras, and a jeep for a fast getaway if things turn nasty. If they manage to avoid being eaten, they stand a good chance of getting an unimpeded view of whatever it is they are photographing. The rest of us are limited to shooting big game in the zoo, with all those bars and high strength glass panels in the way.

Photographing animals in zoos can be frustrating, but that doesn’t mean your pictures have to be disappointing. Here are a few simple things you can do to make your zoo pictures more interesting, and in most cases you won’t need a fancy camera.

1. Switch off the flash

This is probably the most important tip of all. Quite often in zoos you see people taking pictures using the flash, but the last thing you want is a great big flash of white light bouncing back at you from fencing or glass. If it’s too dark to take a picture, you are out of luck, and firing the flash won’t help.

2. Include people

Don’t try to pretend you are in the Serengeti or the jungle, a zoo is interesting enough in itself, especially if you visit with children. This picture was taken with a compact camera in the tiger viewing area at Dublin Zoo earlier this year. I made the subject of the picture my daughter, and because I focused on her rather than the tiger, almost all you can see of the glass is the scratches made by the tigers. This snapshot catches the girl’s excitement very nicely, even though the camera was struggling with the light.

3. Make the bars part of the story

For these pictures of owls, taken at the owl sanctuary at Muncaster Castle in Cumbria, I used the fencing to frame the birds. It might take a bit of trial and error to get the autofocus to pick out the subject through the fence, and if your camera has a manual focus function you should use it, but the effect can be quite striking.

4. Try to focus past fences and bars

This is the only thing in this list you may not be able to do with a compact camera, especially if the animal you are photographing is close. To make the bars disappear you need to get close in to the fence, focus on the animal itself, and make the depth of field (the distance between the closest in focus item, probably your subject, and the one furthest away) as shallow as possible. In 2009 I wrote a more detailed post about how to do this on my old blog. As you can see here, the fencing in the foreground, between the owl and me, has almost completely blurred away to nothing, leaving an apparently clear view of the bird. This one was taken on a fancy-ish camera, a Canon 550D, also at Muncaster, but there is no trickery here, just a picture through a fence.

5. Plan to adjust the pictures later

Before cropping:

There are so many simple tools for editing photos these days it is slightly perverse not to use them if the outcome will be a better image. Services like have made messing around with images, adding effects and filters, easy. At the most basic level, even a simple crop can make a difference. If you go out knowing the limitations of your camera, and accept that you are going to have to adjust the image later, you will feel more free to take pictures even if they don’t look great straight away. I knew that the zoom on my little camera wouldn’t be able to pick out this tiger very well, and although I can’t make a wall-sized poster out of the image below, the cropped version is a big improvement on the one above.

After cropping: