Taking Images at the Zoo

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.

EM1 75-300 at 300 (600mm equivalent)

EM1 75-300 at 300 (600mm equivalent)

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.

With the Dingo looking straight down the lens barrel, there is a compelling need to focus back on her own “lenses”

With the Dingo looking straight down the lens barrel, there is a compelling need to focus back on her own “lenses”

This is an attempt to make the nose more powerful than the eyes, but notice how you are still drawn to the out of focus eyes.

This is an attempt to make the nose more powerful than the eyes, but notice how you are still drawn to the out of focus eyes.

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.

Shot through wire mesh with the lens hard up against it. The wire cut across the outside edge of the lens coverage, but blurred into invisibility. These parrots are as smart as a6 year old child. To prove this, as if on a pre planned signal, all three in the cage flew straight at the fence after this one barked one cry. Sure they think they are hilarious and do this to all who linger too long.

Shot through wire mesh with the lens hard up against it. The wire cut across the outside edge of the lens coverage, but blurred into invisibility. These parrots are as smart as a6 year old child. To prove this, as if on a pre planned signal, all three in the cage flew straight at the fence after this one barked one cry. Sure they think they are hilarious and do this to all who linger too long.

An otherwise ok image, reduced in impact by the “wire haze” across the Lemur’s face.

An otherwise ok image, reduced in impact by the “wire haze” across the Lemur’s face.

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.

This image has the tell-tale signs of a caged enclosure with blurred cage lines in the background. Often with birds, there is little you can do except process these elements out, but a very fast lens (one with a wide maximum aperture) can help. The lens (a 75mm f1.8) used with a very wide aperture (f2) reduced the depth of field considerably, which helped remove some of the background and let you focus on the eye.

This image has the tell-tale signs of a caged enclosure with blurred cage lines in the background. Often with birds, there is little you can do except process these elements out, but a very fast lens (one with a wide maximum aperture) can help. The lens (a 75mm f1.8) used with a very wide aperture (f2) reduced the depth of field considerably, which helped remove some of the background and let you focus on the eye.

Get To Eye Level

A low angle for smaller animals, puts you at eye level as most animals.

The Tasmania Devil enclosure is low walled, allowing a better shooting angle. From this angle it is easy to think of this little guy in the wild.

The Tasmania Devil enclosure is low walled, allowing a better shooting angle. From this angle it is easy to think of this little guy in the wild.

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.

In predominantly black or white situations (indoor light, late afternoon or shooting into strong shadows, bright snow or beach/water glare, most cameras will mistakenly try to correct what they see to give you a normal (as they have been designed to see it) daylight exposure. This image has -1.5 exposure compensation applied. The un-adjusted version was very washed out as the camera tried to brighten all of the background blackness to daylight levels.

In predominantly black or white situations (indoor light, late afternoon or shooting into strong shadows, bright snow or beach/water glare, most cameras will mistakenly try to correct what they see to give you a normal (as they have been designed to see it) daylight exposure. This image has -1.5 exposure compensation applied. The un-adjusted version was very washed out as the camera tried to brighten all of the background blackness to daylight levels.

Be Patient

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.

Only this guy seemed to have access to the point stick end of satisfaction.

Only this guy seemed to have access to the point stick end of satisfaction.

We watched these little guys for awhile and after the novelty was over (for them), this mother appeared with 2 young on her back.

We watched these little guys for awhile and after the novelty was over (for them), this mother appeared with 2 young on her back.

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.