L. Montgomery - NYI Student
How to Take
At the Zoo
Brought to you by:
GarLyn Zoological Park
New York Institute of Photography
look at great photographs of animals we imagine the
romantic life of the professional photographer traveling
to faraway places, living an exotic life, and enjoying
all manner of adventures.
It's true that a lot of great animal photographs are
taken in the wild, but the fact is that many of the
greatest animal pictures are taken at the zoo! Any
pro who does a lot of animal photography will tell you
that some of their best "wild animal" pictures were
taken at the zoo.
There are several reasons why pros like working
at zoos, and these reasons are just as valid for
Cost and convenience:It
goes without saying that transportation costs will be
lower to get to the zoo instead of going on safari, and
you won't need medical shots or a passport.
Kinnie - NYI Student
and convenience aren't even the best reasons. The truth
is that zoo animals are often better photographic
subjects since they live more pampered lives than their
brethren in the wilds. Many animals in the wild have
nicks and scratches covering their ears and faces -
injuries from the rough-and-tumble life that comes from
competing for food, shelter, and mates. Not so in the
zoo, where food and shelter and, often, mates are
readily provided to prevent Darwinian battles.
wild you can spend days or months to find the animal you
want to photograph...and once you spot the beast you're
likely to take the picture of the animal as it is - not
necessarily as you would like it to be. If it's up in a
tree, that's where you're going to photograph it. If
it's sleeping in the brush, so be it. At the zoo you
have more possibilities to get the right "pose."
the animal you want, you simply follow the printed
signs. If the animal's pose is not exactly right, you
can wait a while...or go onto something else and then
come back. You're not in a take-it-or-leave-it
photograph at the zoo, you have the luxury of waiting
for the right weather. If it's not perfect, you can
easily come back when it's better. In the next photo you
can see how NYI student Wayne Angeloty was able to get
exactly the back-lighting he wanted, producing bright
furry outlines for these two "conversing" monkeys.
Angeloty - NYI Student
close to animals in the wild can be dangerous, and many
a wildlife photographer has the scars to prove it. At
the zoo you can usually get close enough without any
Convinced? Okay. Let's review the key points that will
help you get those great zoo photographs:
note of warning. We see a lot of people taunting
animals at the zoo and ignoring signs that tell them not
to feed the animals or toss objects into cages. It goes
without saying that photographers should respect these
rules, do nothing to irritate animals, and, perhaps,
even take the lead and speak up if there are people who
are ignoring the rules. Remember, a happy healthy animal
is a great photo subject. Help keep zoo animals free
from human aggravation.
Now you're going to need the right equipment. There
are two key pieces of equipment: The first is a long
zoom lens or a telephoto lens on your camera. The other
is fast (ISO 400 or higher) film. As you can see, what
you need is not very exotic.
The long lens is important because it will enable you
to make your subject large in the photo and
allow you to crop out distracting surroundings that
would detract from the subject.
Do those benefits of the long lens sound familiar?
They should. They're Guidelines Two and
Three of NYI's Three Guidelines for Better
Photographs. Guideline Two tells you to add
emphasis to the subject of your photo - the long lens
lets you do this by making your subject big so it fills
the frame. Guideline Three tells you to eliminate
anything that will distract from your subject - the long
lens does this by narrowing the field of view so very
little clutter can be seen.
What about Guideline One? It tells you to
know what you want to be the subject of your
picture before you click the shutter. In this case you
chose your subject for each photograph before you even
lifted the viewfinder to your eye. Your subject is the
animal or animals you're photographing!
Guideline Three is particularly important
when you shoot pictures of animals in the zoo. After
all, you are usually trying to create the illusion
of the animal in the wild. Anything in your picture
that shouts "ZOO" has to be eliminated. So try to avoid
showing cage bars, zoo visitors, or signs. For example,
we think the next picture would have been more effective
if the fence weren't so obvious.
Why fast film? Because animals often move - and they can
move pretty fast in the zoo as well as the wild. You
usually don't want to blur your subject. With a fast
film you will be able to shoot with a sufficiently fast
shutter speed to freeze the action.
Not long ago we got a call from a photographer
lamenting that all the images he shot on a recent trip
to the zoo had come out blurred. Turns out he had used
very slow film along with a long lens that opened no
wider than f/4.5. The combination was death - it
required long exposures that resulted in camera shake
and blurred motion. Why did he use such a slow film, we
asked? He explained that in a college photography course
he once took, his teacher had warned him against using
fast film because it was too grainy.
was years out of date. At NYI we tell our students not
to worry too much about grain. Because today's new film
emulsions have dramatically improved the fine grain
quality of most films - even relatively fast films, such
as ISO 400 or even 800. Our advice to you: Unless you
plan to blow up your pictures to more than 11x14, don't
worry about grain.
Here's a picture of a charging rhino taken by an NYI
student at the Los Angeles Zoo. It's awfully good. This
rhino looks like he's charging out of the Congo River,
not a zoo moat. But the image is a bit soft. Would it
make the pages of National Geographic? Probably
not because it's not 100% sharp.
it soft? The photographer had no choice once he loaded
his film. He used ISO 50 slide film, which forced him to
shoot at 1/30 of a second. At this slow shutter speed
the charging rhino is slightly blurred. Had he used ISO
400 film, he could have shot at 1/250 of a second and
frozen the action. Then this picture would be worthy of
the pages of National Geographic.
Which brings us back to the question of how wide you
can open your lens. If you're using an SLR with a long
lens that has a wide (f/2.8) aperture, you can probably
get away with slower film - perhaps ISO 100 or 200. As
we'll discuss shortly, the wide-open aperture also gives
you the advantage of being able to eliminate foreground
and background clutter by using selective focus.
However, you usually don't have this luxury when you're
using a point-and-shoot camera with a zoom lens like a
35-115mm. When you're zoomed out, your lens will offer a
maximum aperture of f/8 or even f/11. Forget selective
focus. Forget a fast shutter speed. With a zoomed-out
point-and-shoot camera you need ISO 400 or faster film
just to avoid camera shake.
So much for equipment. Now, let's get to some
specific shooting tips.
to be the first ones into the zoo. Most animals are
active in the morning and there usually aren't large
groups of visitors and school kids crowding around the
Get in tight.
you're using a zoom lens or a telephoto, you'll find the
larger you can make the animal in the frame, the more
impact your photo will have. Almost all the pictures you
see here fill the frame with the face of the animal.
Use a tripod
rock steady, knife-sharp images. Remember, a long lens
may force you to shoot with a slow shutter speed. Use a
tripod to avoid any possibility of camera shake.
DeLaney - NYI Dean
To avoid clutter - change angle.
let the amusing antics of your subject lull you into
shooting against a bad background. Remember the three
NYI Guidelines. Remember you want to create the
illusion of the wild. If you can see anything in
the viewfinder that distracts, eliminate it. Chances are
if you move just a few feet in either direction, it will
To avoid clutter - use selective focus.
As we noted before, one of the advantages of a wide
aperture is that you can employ a narrow depth of field
to toss the background out of focus. This can be a real
help in creating the illusion of the wild - for
example, let's say there's a concrete background that's
designed to look like real rocks. If the background is
sharp, it looks fake and you know the animal is in the
zoo. By using selective focus, you can throw the
concrete "rocks" out of focus and make them look more
real. In the next picture, you can see how NYI student
Guy Boily used selective focus to make the ocelot sharp
while the background becomes undefinable.
© Guy F.
Pick your weather.
give up just because it's cloudy. You may be able to get
better shots on a cloudy day of animals against a
background filled with glare, like water or
light-colored rocks. And if the weather's bad, you'll
probably be less concerned with crowds of visitors. In
fact, when the weather's downright "lousy," you may be
able to get some great shots - in rain or snow there
will be almost no other visitors, and the inclement
weather can create a sense of nature that helps add to
the "illusion" of the wild. Of course, there's nothing
wrong with sunny weather for these pictures; just make
sure the animals don't squint!
Flash for catch lights.
small white dots in the eyes of people are part of what
give life to a portrait. Photographers call them "catch
lights." Those same catch lights give emphasis to the
eyes of animals as well. You can see them in many of the
pictures shown in this section, for example in the
picture shown to the left by NYI student Carla Steckley.
DeLaney - NYI Dean
Using a flash also helps photograph animals that are on
display behind glass, like the snake shown here. The
trick is to avoid the reflection of glare off the glass.
To avoid this glare, shoot at an angle through the glass
instead of head on. Remember the old angle-of-incidence
equals angle-of-reflection rule. Make sure the
reflection is thrown outside your image. If you shoot
head on, the glare will be thrown right back into the
lens - and your picture will be ruined.
People aren't always in the way.
There are times that the interaction of humans with
animals and vice versa tells a story in its own right.
Don't always avoid people in your photos.
Sometimes they can add a depth and dimension that
adds to the picture - for example, as in this
simple yet deeply involving photo by NYI Student Wayne
Angeloty taken in the aquarium.
Angeloty - NYI Student
Feeding time and other special times.
The sea lions in Central Park know when it's feeding
time and they love to perform for their keepers and for
the appreciative audiences that gather three times a
day. In many zoos there are some animals, including new
born babies, that are only on view for a limited amount
of time. Make sure you know the schedule for these photo
portrait photographers often cite the "E.S.P. Rule."
That means Expressions Sell Pictures.
The same thing applies to zoo animals. If the bear is
sleeping, or just standing, or day dreaming, you don't
have as exciting a photo as you do if the bear is
growling, yawning, or otherwise active and expressing
If you follow our tips and visit your local zoo
frequently, you'll have a lot of fun and take lots of
great zoo photos!
Reprinted with permission from the New York
Institute of Photography website at
Copyright © 2005
GarLyn Zoological Park,Inc.
Hwy 2 Naubinway, MI. 49762