Words and Pictures: Peter Bargh (Article updated Feb 2012)
With the half term holidays starting this week you may be looking for somewhere to go where you can take photos but still keep your kids entertained. The zoo is one such location, however the fences and glass keeping the animals and us safe can be a photographer's nightmare so here are a selection of tips to help you combat some of the problems you may encounter along with some general pointers to help you take better photos at a zoo.
1. Shooting through fences
One of the big challenges at a zoo is to clear the fence and, for the sportier ones amongst you, that doesn't mean jumping over it. Animals in cages tend to be surrounded by a fine wire mesh that often rises above eye level. So you often have to take photos with the cage in front of you. If you don't adjust the camera's settings and position you will have poor photos with a blurred grid. To compensate you need to move as close as possible to the fence. Position the camera so the lens is pointing through one of the gaps or, when the fence has small gaps, make sure that the face of the animal you're photographing is in a gap.
If the camera has manual exposure control, adjust the aperture so it's at a wider setting, this will reduce depth-of-field (front to back sharpness) and throw the fence out of focus. Hopefully the fence will be so blurred it won't be seen in the photo.
If you can't shoot through or throw the fence out of focus you can often clone it out later using an image editing program.
2. The weather
You can never predict the weather and when shooting outdoors at zoos this can be a disaster if it rains. You may not only get drenched, but the animals will often head indoors, leaving many of the grazing areas empty.
You can usually gain access to the inner enclosures, but the shooting conditions and good viewpoints are often reduced. Also most of the visitors will be sheltering too, so the area is likely to be crowded.
If you're shooting outdoors in the rain make sure you're protecting your camera from the wet. Most cameras can cope with a small amount of rain, but a serious downpour could seep into the camera's workings and cause it to malfuntion. The key is not to get raindrops on the lens as this will make your photos blurred. Keep a lens cloth to hand and wipe the lens free whenever necessary. You can usually see the spots through the lens of an SLR or on a digital compact with an LCD view.
Alternatively you could ask your companion to shelter you and your camera while you take the shot using their coat or a brolly.
Most people think sunny days are the best, but the sun can cause harsh shadows, so detail is either lost in the shadows or the highlights. See tip 8 on flash for advice on balancing the shadows. Shooting on overcast days are usually better for zoo photography, as you will produce results that are more even toned and often better exposed. You may also find many animals are more active in such conditions.
3. Dealing with glass
Glass is a real problem in a zoo. Not only is it harder to get a sharp and clear shot, but greasy smudges from visitors who've either pressed their heads or hand against the glass cause the view to be blurred.
Carry a cloth to wipe the area you will shoot through. Press the camera against the glass to minimse reflections and attach a lens hood or hold your hand above or to the side of the camera's lens to prevent any further reflections causing distractions.
Watch out for other visitors leaning on the glass as this will cause movement which will be a problem if you're shooting with slower shutter speeds.
Some camera focusing systems can be fooled by glass. If this happens and the test picture is blurred switch to manual focus or use focus lock on something on the outside of the glass that's at a similar distance.
4. Watch the background
Zoo backgrounds are difficult to get right. If you're shooting up at a bird on a perch you'll have an extremely bright background, If the animal is in an enclosure you may see part of the cage in the background. To make the animal look as though it's in the wild you need to choose your position carefully. Look around the frame to spot distractions, avoid fence posts coming out of the top of the head, walk around the enclosure looking for the best vantage point. Sometimes you can position a mound behind the subject so the whole thing looks more natural. Try to isolate single animals, as two close together can end up with a shot that looks like you photographed a freak of nature - a giraffe with two heads or an eight legged rhino.
5. Time of day
The time of day is vital for the best shots. Animals are often more active at feeding times, some are fed inside, some outside, some are only active at certain times of the day, some like brighter weather, others like cold weather. Do a bit of research before-hand to help determine your route through the zoo. Feeding times are usually the crowd pullers so you have to be aware that you may not get an unobstructed viewpoint. If it's a particularly interesting animal you want to photograph head to that area at least 10mins before feeding time to get a good spot.
The focus point is critical in all photography. We've mentioned the bars of the cage and that you should shoot through them. If your camera has automatically selective focus zones, switch the camera to center focus to stop it focusing on the fence. If the animal is moving around and your camera has a focus lock you could prefocus on a certain point and take the photo as the creature enters the focus zone. Always focus on the eyes as they are the most important aspect. Remember to use focus lock or manual if you have problems shooting through glass (see Tip 3).
When the animal is fast moving, you need to ensure the camera's shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the action. To do this you have two options - set it manually using manual exposure or shutter-priority exposure mode.
Try creative shots by using a slower speed when shooting apes swinging or animals roaming around at a fast pace. Following the path of the animal as you press the shutter is a technique known as panning and if you get it right you will have a sharp animal and a blurred background. With this technique aim for a shutter setting of around 1/8sec to 1/30sec, depending on the speed of the animal.
In the aquarium try holding the camera steady on a slow speed and let the fish swim past through the exposure - use the glass as your camera support. Get this right and you will have a creative abstract photo with colourful blurred streaks.
Flash is often not allowed at zoos, so make sure you respect the site's requests and look for camera warning signs. The signs are usually present when the animals are sensitive to flash - nocturnal areas, aquariums etc. If there are no signs you could use flash in fill-in mode to add some light to shadow areas on contrasty days, or for indoor shots where the light levels are lower. In most cases it's better to use available light if your camera has the necessary exposure range to cope. Most cameras can have their exposure sensitivity increased to take better pictures in lower light. See tip 9 on ISO.
The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the CCD is to light. This means the camera can be used in lower light to take a good photo. The downside is that pictures become noisier on digital. Noise looks like a detuned TV with very course coloured dots that ruin the photo, especially when detail is magnified.
So try to avoid going above the camera's safe ISO setting. This is normally around ISO 400 to ISO800. Some of the latest cameras can cope at much higher settings but it's better to be safe than sorry.
10. Shooting position
Many zoo animals are at a lower level to adults, so if we take photos from a standing position we will be pointing downwards. This tends to not only distort features, but also produce boring compositions. By kneeling down and becoming eye level to the animal (where possible) we gain a much better perspective and usually a stronger picture. If you physically struggle to go low try holding the camera at a low point at arms length. Shoot on a wider lens setting to be sure you get the whole animal in and crop the extraneous background out later. With a digital camera you can preview your shot and retake if you messed up. A few shots later and you'll get the knack.
When a fence or crowd is in the way you could attach the camera to a monopod, set it to the self timer mode and move it up above the obstruction. The knack here is gauging the angle and direction of the camera so you get the animal in the right part of the photo.
11. Fill the frame
Wherever possible use the zoom at the longer lens setting to fill the frame with the subject rather than including lots of the surrounds. This will not only give the impression that the animal is in the wild, but will also give pictures with much more impact.
Be careful, the more magnification you use the more chance camera shake will show up. As a guide aim to be using a shutter speed at least the same as the focal length of the lens in use, for example, with a 300mm lens aim for a shutter speed of at least 1/300sec.
12. Dealing with crowds
Be aware that you may get nudged about by some eager viewer who has no regard for you taking pictures, equally just because they are not taking pictures doesn't make you more important. So be respectful of others. Feeding times will make animals more active but will also encourage crowds. Walk around the enclosure looking for vantage points with fewer people. Longer lenses help in these situations.
13. Switch to macro
Most cameras and lenses have a macro setting where the camera's focusing system is set up to shoot close range photos. Sometimes this can be just centimetres away from the subject. In a zoo you cannot normally get really close to the creatures so it's better use the longer lens setting in combination with the macro mode. Some zoos have a butterfly enclosure and here it's possible to put macro mode to full use.
14. Useful filters
A polarising filter reduces glare off the coats of animals as fur can have a sheen that looks overly bright when light bounces off it. A polarising filter will reduce the bounced light so you can see texture and tones in the fur. The polariser is also good when shooting through glass as it reduces reflections. It's also ideal for use when shooting underwater animals as it cuts through surface reflections and glare.
A graduated grey filter will help when shooting animals against a bright sky. The graduated filter reduces the exposure in the brighter areas so it balances with the animal on the ground.
If you shoot jpeg mode remember to switch to the correct white balance setting indicated with icons in your white balance settings and, more importantly, remember to set it back when you return to the outdoors. Most digital cameras are quite accurate at guessing the correct type of lighting when the camera is set to auto white balance. Better still, if your camera has a RAW mode you can shoot using that rather than jpg and then you can adjust the colour balance later.
15. Camera safety
We've already mentioned keeping your camera protected when it's raining. Watch out for pickpockets too.
A camera left at your side on a bench is easy target, also one poking out of your bag, or loosely attached to your wrist could be snatched by an eager thief.
Watch out for condensation when moving from the cold outdoors to a heated enclosure, particularly ones that are heated to tropical climate. Your camera will steam up due to condensation and will take several minutes to acclimatise. Take photos when it's not ready and you will get very hazy results.