10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography

5 July 2021

The world’s best wildlife photos capture animals in all their glory, and give humans a glimpse into their lives. While they rely on the best light and photography techniques, a lot of it comes down to being at the right place at the right time. 

Heading off on safari is expensive, but if you want to master the art of animal photography, you can start at your local zoo. It’s probably home to a diverse range of wildlife from here and across the globe, making it the perfect place to hone your skills and figure out what interests you most about this style of photography. 

These are our 10 top animal photography tips, plus the gear you need in your zoo photography kit.

#1 Use a lens with a long focal length

Even though zoo enclosures make it easier to spot animals, the framing and composition are still up to you. To get an up-close and personal view, consider attaching a  telephoto lens to your camera. 

In the world of wildlife photography, telephoto lenses are the gold standard. The best lens for zoo photography, they separate the foreground and background, so you can sharpen your subject — in this case, the animal — and capture as much detail as possible. They also have the longest magnification of any lens, which means you can photograph faraway subjects.

10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography

There are two types of telephoto lenses, and either will work at the zoo. Prime telephoto lenses have a fixed focal length between 60mm to 800mm, and the bigger the number, the more magnified the lens. Then there are zoom lenses, which are more versatile as they allow you to adjust your focal length and framing without physically moving. This is handy when you only have limited space to work with, like when you’re standing in front of a zoo enclosure.

Top tip: Because of their long magnification, telephoto lenses often lead to camera shake. To avoid ending up with fuzzy images, it’s a good idea to mount your DSLR or mirrorless camera to a tripod or monopod.

Take a closer look at some great wildlife photography lenses

#2 Shoot with a wide aperture

10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography

Whenever you’re photographing animals, the goal is to capture and highlight the small details that make them so majestic. One way to do that is by adding a good amount of background blur to your images. That’s why the best lens for wildlife photography is a lens with a wide aperture.

These lenses have a shallow depth of field, which often leaves you with a more striking image. Plus, they’re a great tool for blurring any man-made elements in the background and foreground for a more natural finish.

Using a lens with a wider aperture also lets in more light. This means you can set your camera at a faster shutter speed, “freeze” the action and photograph fast-moving animals.

Top tip: If the lighting at the zoo is bright, you might have trouble using a wide aperture lens on its own. The solution? A Neutral Density (ND) filter. ND filters act like a pair of sunglasses for your lens, limiting the amount of light that gets in so you can take balanced, well-exposed and vibrantly coloured photos.

#3 Visit the zoo in off-peak times

Let’s talk logistics. To photograph animals without other visitors sneaking into the frame or bumping the leg of your tripod, try to avoid the zoo on busy days, such as weekends, school holidays or public holidays. Chances are, it will be full of families and small children who are excited to run around and check out all the animals. 

It goes without saying that zoo animals are used to humans. But just like us, they tend to be more relaxed and free to be themselves when they aren’t being watched by so many people.

10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography

#4 Shoot when the lighting is at its best

10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography

Going to the zoo as soon as it opens has other perks, too. Along with skipping the crowds, you’ll also be able to make the most of the natural light, especially if the zoo opens its doors bright and early, when the lighting is soft, warm and inviting. On the other hand, if you shoot in the middle of the day when the sun is directly overhead, you could end up with bright highlights and deep shadows — and spend an unnecessary amount of time editing your photos.

If you find that the sun isn’t in the best position to capture your favourite animals, it’s worth sticking around for a few hours or returning to the zoo just before it closes. The late afternoon light is also beautiful. But if the zoo’s opening hours don’t catch the “golden hours,” consider moving your shoot to the colder months, when the days are shorter.

#5 Work around the fences

As a visitor, you’ll probably be happy to see some sort of fence or barrier separating you from the wild animals. But as a photographer, you might find those structures frustrating or distracting, and feel like they’re spoiling your perfect shot.

Here’s the good news: most zoos are careful to create barriers that prevent animals from escaping while making sure visitors’ views aren’t blocked too much. Along with asking the zoo about their barriers beforehand, there are a couple of ways you can work around them.

10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography

If the fence has wide gaps, try to get up close and position your camera through the fence. Otherwise, try using a telephoto lens with a longer focal length and wide aperture to blur out the fence. Autofocus might not work properly, so it’s worth switching to manual mode and playing around with wildlife photography settings that way.

#6 Avoid reflections in the glass

10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography

Again, this is easier said than done — but we have an insider tip! While the glass at zoo enclosures gives us a closer view of the animals, it can create unwanted reflections in your images. The trick is to use a long lens and step back so the glass is rendered out of focus. 

If that doesn’t work, you can attach a circular polarising filter on your lens, use a wipe to remove fingerprints and smudges in the glass, and dress in plain, dark clothing to make your reflection less visible.

#7 Be patient

Like with many things in life, patience is a virtue when you’re at the zoo! Aim to give yourself a good stretch of time at the zoo, so you don’t need to rush from one enclosure to the next, settling for photos you aren’t 100% satisfied with. 

The best zoo photographs capture a specific moment, such as an animal tapping into its base instincts, or a comical or loving interaction between a few members of the same species. These scenes are tricky to come across, but the more time you spend observing the animals in their natural habitat, the better the reward will be.

10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography

Our advice? Set your camera up on your tripod from a good vantage point, focus your lens and wait for the right time to fire. Enjoy watching the day-to-day lives of the animals, and don’t leave if nothing happens right away.

#8 Embrace the crowds, if you have to

10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography

Ideally, you’ll go to the zoo during a quiet time and have it all to yourself. But if you arrive at the zoo and find it’s more crowded than you’d like, embrace that and include people as subjects in your photos.

For example, you could illustrate how small children interact with animals at the zoo to document the life of an animal in captivity. Just know you might need to switch to a wide-angle lens for this purpose.

#9 Look for different vantage points

Perspective is everything, and it can take your shot from good to great. While standing at the front of the enclosure is the most logical spot to start looking for the perfect shot, you might only get a glimpse of the animal. Depending on the zoo you’re at, you might be able to position yourself at a higher or lower vantage point to get a different view of the enclosure. Take the time to scope out every option before you move on to the next subject.

10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography

#10 Set realistic goals

10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography10 Tips for Better Zoo Photography

Visiting your local zoo allows you to come face-to-face with animals from around the world. And as a budding photographer, it gives you the chance to see these species through your camera lens.

That being said, zoos are set up for the comfort of the animals and the viewing pleasure of visitors as a whole. In other words, you can’t expect to capture images that look just like those taken “in the wild.”

On your trips to the zoo, you’ll encounter glass, cages and other visitors making their way into your shots. If you spend all of your time worrying about trying to replicate nature and pretend the human presence isn’t there, you’re going to be disappointed more often than not. We recommend leaning into all distractions and just focusing on getting the best possible shot at any given time. You’ll not only be more successful, but you’ll also have much more fun while you are at it!

Shop the best lens for animal photography

If you’re interested in animal photography, the zoo is a great place to sharpen your skills and get the hang of framing and composing photos of moving subjects.

A digital camera aside, there are specific lenses to take to the zoo to get “the” shot, as well as helpful accessories like tripods. Before your trip, shop for wildlife photography gear online or pop into your closest Ted’s Cameras store to get expert advice from our team.

Save $10*

When you subscribe to ClubTed today!