Take Better Wildlife Photos with a Trip to the Zoo

Jeff Cable

Photographing exotic wildlife is exciting and intriguing, but we don't always have the time or resources to jet-set to an African safari. So, where's the next best place to capture images for your own photographic menagerie? Take a trip to your local zoo!

From butterflies to buffalo, the zoo is a great place to get stunning images of the daily lives of almost any species. In order to take the best pictures, here are a number of helpful hints.

  1. Pick the right time of day

    The best time to take pictures at the zoo is right when they open to the public. The animals tend to be livelier in the morning, creating better photo opportunities. Additionally, the morning light providers a softer perspective where the afternoon casts strong shadows on and around the subject.

  2. Use your zoom

    Whether shooting with a small point-and-shoot camera or a digital SLR with interchangeable lenses, try to zoom in and get as close as possible to the animals. If a selection of lenses are available, try a lens with 300mm or longer focal length. This will help isolate the animal without the distracting backgrounds.


  3. Focus on eyes and face

    Most good photographs of people and animals have one thing in common: the eyes are in focus. In most cases, unless the goal is to take an abstract image, the picture will not be as strong or captivating if the animal's eyes are not in focus.

    This image is a great example. It was taken with an aperture of f2.8 to blur the background and draw the viewer's attention to the bird's colorful face.

  4. Work around the fence

    Most animals in the zoo are surrounded by an enclosure, which can pose a challenge when trying to take natural pictures of the subject. However, by using the right photography techniques, much of this distraction can be mitigated.

    Try to get as close to the fence as possible — safely of course — and shoot the image from that vantage point. Work on selectively focusing the camera, and make sure to force the focus on the animal rather than the fence. When using a DSLR camera, try shooting in Aperture Priority mode with the lens wide open (try f2.8 or f4) to isolate the subject from the foreground.

  5. Avoid light and shadows

    This tip is true for shooting almost any picture with a digital camera. It is always best to have the subject completely in the shade or fully in the sun. If there is a mix of lighting, it will be very difficult to get a good photo of the animal. With bright, sunlit areas and shadows in the frame, the camera has a tough time trying to determine which part of the image should be bright and what should be dark.

  6. Use your flash (when permitted)

    Try something a little more advanced by using the flash during daylight shooting. This "fill-flash" light will help brighten the shadows, bringing out more of the details in the animal's fur, and provide a well-lit image.

    Notice how much more detail is now visible when fill-flash is added to the image.

  7. Be patient!

    It's difficult to get a good image by taking casual "walk-by" pictures, so remember to take your time and work the exhibit to get the best shots. This will give you time to:

    • Wait for the animal to move into better light
    • Look for different expressions on the animal's face
    • Let the animals move into a better area with fewer man-made items around them
    • See the interactions of multiple animals in the exhibit

    For example, during this session we took many images of these birds, but by waiting just a few extra minutes we were able to get this shot of them in unison. It's much more interesting than a single bird in the frame, and well worth waiting for.

  8. Try shooting video

    Most of today's digital cameras have a video mode, either standard- or high-definition. Put that to good use by capturing some video of the animals. This is especially rewarding when the animals are interacting with each other and with the general public.

    Click here to see how some simple footage can complement your images

    As with any type of photographic adventure, have fun and try new techniques. While your pictures may not look like those in magazines at the start, continue to practice, be creative and experiment with your style and the best photographs will soon follow.