Zoo Photography – Helen’s Tips

Helen Whitford_Tiger Tiger_Colour (Open)


For those attending the zoo excursion on Sunday, the weather forecast is to be overcast.  Overcast is OK, but bright days are best. Summer is worst as the light is harsh and creates too much contrast. If it’s too hot many animals lie around and sleep. If it’s cold and wet they hide out the back.


Time of day

I recommend that you get there at opening – 9.30am The animals are most active early in the morning and late afternoon and the light is nicer at these times too. Zoo membership is great for photographers because you can go often at the better times of day rather than pay for a day and feel that you have to stay all day to get the most for your money!


General animal portraits –

I recommend that you try to get to eye level with the animal if possible. Get them with the light on their face and a catch-light in the eye. Focus should be sharp on the eyes and reasonably sharp to their nose. Selective focus with a shallow depth of field (use low F stop number)
Capturing “moments” or interactions results in better photos. I try to either show a connection between two or more animals or between me and the subject. Also think of different angles and quirky or arty approaches.


Mode –

I generally shoot in Aperture Priority and use single point autofocus (which I move around to wherever I need it) I set ISO so that the shutter will be fast enough in the given light.
Gear – I don’t generally use flash (personal choice). I never use a tripod. You need to be able to move around quickly to get the animals from the right angle etc. If you have a heavy lens a monopod may be wise to save your arms.

Shooting through wire –

For best results you need a long focal length (200mm +), wide aperture ( 2.8 – 6.3), the animal needs to be a few metres away from the wire and you need to be as close to it as possible (keeping in mind you’re not allowed to hop over the fence at the lions!) Find a part of the fence which is in shadow. If it’s in direct sun it’s hard to make it disappear! Don’t use flash unless your lens is hard up against the wire.


Shooting through glass –

Watch for reflections. See if it’s likely to be better if you come back when the sun’s in a different position. Get as close to the glass as possible. (Remove lens hood and get right on the glass if possible. It may help to shade above the lens with your left hand.) If you can’t get near the glass make sure to move to a spot where you minimise reflections around your subject. Red or white t shirts can easily ruin your shot!


Behaviour –

If you want to capture feeds check the Feeding Schedule. (But be aware there are crowds and it may be difficult to get decent shots.)
Be patient. If you find an animal you really want to capture be prepared to watch and wait. Observe the behaviour. Try to predict what they’ll do and where they’ll be.


Choice of Subject –

My favourite subjects are lions (who knew!), tigers, otters, meerkats, sea-lions, quokkas (kids zoo) and birds. The walk-through aviaries provide wire/glass-free opportunities. If you pack a macro lens there are opportunities in the gardens as well as sea-horses and other little creatures in the Envirodome.

Have fun!
Helen Whitford

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