Photography at the Zoo

Photographing animals requires one thing above all else; Patience.

Whether you're photographing your own cat or dog at home, or if you're in an exotic location with wild animals, capturing them at the right moment when they are doing something amazing is difficult.

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You can't ask animals to change position or move to a new location. You have to wait for them to be in the right place and in the right light.

You can't ask them to do something interesting to make your photo better. You just have to wait until they do it, and be ready to capture it.

The only way you can get better at photographing animals is to observe and wait and practice.

A great place to do this is at your local Zoo. You get to practice photographing animals, and your entry fee goes to rare and endangered species conservation and research.

While I was in Portland a few weeks back I spent an afternoon at the Oregon Zoo to practice my skills. It was a rainy overcast day which is great for avoiding dark shadows and high contrast, but also meant there was less light to enable fast shutter speeds.

I had to go really high with my ISO settings (remember ISO increases/decreases your cameras sensitivity to light, but also increases noise at high ISO), and with my camera (which is a little old) this means an increase in grain. With full frame cameras you can set your ISO quite high without it affecting the quality of your photos, but not so much with cropped sensor, older cameras like mine.

I still have a long way to go when it comes to photographing animals/birds/any moving object, but I really enjoyed practicing at the Zoo.

Here's 5 quick tips for photography at the Zoo

1. Observe and learn

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Observe your subject and get to know some of it's habits, then find a position that works - no distracting wire or smudges on the glass- and stay there. You will notice certain patterns of behavior by simply observing them, and if you practice patience you can simply wait for your subject to come back into the frame you have set up. If you know you have a spot which works, it doesn't help to try chasing your subject around from outside the enclosure.

2. Minimize distraction

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Set up your shots with minimal distracting elements by getting in close and focusing on the eyes of your subject.

If you have to shoot through glass find a clean spot (or wipe it clean yourself) and get in close with a lens hood to avoid reflections.

If you have to shoot through wire get up close and use a high aperture (low f stop number) to ensure the camera doesn't focus on the wire.

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Either try to capture your subject so it seems like they're not enclosed, or use the enclosure as part of your image.

3. Get to know your camera

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While you are observing your subject take some practice shots to see whats going to work. There's nothing worse than missing an awesome shot because you haven't adjusted your settings.

If you want to freeze motion you need fast shutter speeds (1/500 sec or more), high ISO and wide open aperture. Use TV mode for action shots.

If you're shooting in low light you can increase aperture, and set the ISO quite high in order to decrease the shutter speed.

Practice with all three settings to find what works.

4. Be OK with imperfection

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Don't obsess over getting the perfect shot the first time. Think of each photograph as a lesson which you can learn more from.

Don't stress if you can't get a shot of a particular subject (the lion enclosure had huge sheets of filthy glass in front of it making it impossible to get a shot of them). It's ok if some of your shots don't work out.

Learn from each experience.

5. Enjoy the moment

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Don't forget to take time to actually appreciate where you are and what you are experiencing.

Consider the incredible animals you get to see and be respectful of the Zoo rules (don't try to climb on anything to get a better shot).

Conservation Zoo's conduct research and do what they can for endangered species.

If you are so inclined you can help out by purchasing a Zoo membership or even by volunteering.

If you are interested in photographing wildlife go to your local Zoo and practice your skills.

Here's a few extra shots from my afternoon at the Zoo.

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