We held a recent workshop at our local (Tasmania) Zoo just outside of Launceston.
Zoo’s have some unique technical issues that arise from our natural desire to make the enclosures disappear and the animals to look as natural and “free” as possible.
Here are some quick tips to help you achieve that.
Crop In Tightly
The tighter you crop, the more intimate your image. The connection you and your viewer make to a subject is often directly related to distance, so get a tight as you can. If you do not have a long lens or the animal is small/too far away, then crop a little and/or use a little post processing to remove distracting elements in your image.
Focus on the Eyes
As with all portrait photography, the usual best practice is to focus on the subject’s eyes. Out of focus eyes when there is no good reason is just distracting to the viewer (we are naturally conditioned to look at eyes, so an image with soft eyes needs to have a solid reason why). Out of focus eyes can work for an image, but usually only if there is an equally compelling subject in the frame.
Some mirrorless cameras or SLR’s in live view have face detection that works on animals, but if in doubt use your camera’s single point focus option to hit the eye accurately.
Get Close To Fencing
One of the most obvious issues with caged animals is wire, netting or glass between you and the subject. The best two ways to get around this photographically are;
Get as close as you can to the fence. If you decrease your distance to wire in relation to the subjects distance from it, then the foreground obstruction blurs away, becoming effectively invisible to the camera. Sometimes the wire creates subtle blur lines in the image, so try to shoot through these, not have one directly across the frame.
Use the longest lens you can. This has a similar effect to the above technique and is often your only option for large and dangerous animals such as Lions or Tigers. If your long lens gives you a wide aperture option (smaller aperture number), reducing depth of field, this will also help.
Glass adds the extra problem of dirt, flare and haze, made even worse if you use flash. A good trick if photographing through glass, especially in an aquarium is to have the lens/lens hood hard against the glass and use flash, avoiding the flash light bouncing off the glass and straight up the lens barrel.
Look For Clean Backgrounds
The other environmental test you will face after the foreground fence or barrier, is the background. Light areas, ugly enclosure walls and man made things in the background are very distracting and remove the illusion of the animal being in the wild.
Get To Eye Level
A low angle for smaller animals, puts you at eye level as most animals.
Use Exposure Compensation
Exposure compensation is a very useful tool for reducing exposure errors or allowing you some creative license in difficult lighting situations. The +/- control, usually only available in non automatic modes lets you compensate for the camera’s own over-compensation errors in overly dark or bright situations.
As you watch an animal, they become less fearful and behave more naturally. Like people, each individual animal has it’s own habits and quirks. Wait a little while and they will start to show you what makes them different.
Tell A Story
Small connected sets of images can be more interesting than single shots. This pheasant was a difficult subject due to low light and natural twitchiness. Three reasonable images together is more powerful than one so-so one and adds context.