Home How-To Tip Of The Week Photographing Wildlife at the Zoo—12/20/10
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Monday, December 20, 2010

Photographing Wildlife at the Zoo—12/20/10

How to create captive animal images as if you were on safari

This Article Features Photo Zoom


I’m probably never going to photograph a sprinting cheetah on the vast African plain. But I could possibly make a nice portrait of the animal if I visited my local zoo. Sure, there are some things you can’t photograph even in the best of zoos—like an animal in its wide-open natural habitat—but with a little practice you can make interesting animal portraits with a visit to your local zoo. Here’s how to make your domestic photo safari a success.

- Bring a long lens. The longer the better. A 70-200mm zoom is a great start, especially if you use it at the 200mm end. If you can get a 300mm, 400mm or even longer lens, you’ll love it for getting close-up portraits of animal faces and for condensing the scene to minimize background distractions like cages and enclosures. (If you’ve got a long lens with vibration reduction, this is the perfect opportunity to put it to the test. Especially since some facilities frown upon tripod use.)

- Shoot wide open. The shallower the depth of field, the better—especially if you want to minimize those distracting background elements that can take the focus off the animal’s face. A wider aperture will also allow you to use a faster shutter speed to minimize motion blur and keep those active animals sharp.

- Watch the background. Natural greenery or a wide-open blue sky looks much better than a brick wall or chain link fence. Many times a subtle perspective adjustment makes those dramatic background switches possible; bending down and shooting toward the sky is a great way to simplify the background. Power lines running through the frame also detract from the animals, so in those cases go the other direction—try to get a higher perspective to eliminate aerial lines.

- If you’re shooting through bars, a fence or a glass enclosure, get your camera as close to the barrier as possible. (Let me rephrase that: get as close to the barrier as is safely possible.) A wide open aperture helps too, as it will also blur foreground obstructions and allow you to shoot through fence openings that may not be as large as the lens diameter. For glass reflections, a black t-shirt or other dark material placed strategically helps to minimize reflections and shoot unobstructed.

- Compose animal portraits as you would portraits of people. They say you shouldn’t work with kids or animals, and perhaps it’s because neither of them like to sit still for portraits. But as best you’re able to, try to treat animal portraits as you would people portraits. Focusing on the eyes is a great start, and make sure that the animal is at least recognizable—and definitely not turned away from the camera.

- Put the sun at your subject’s back to create separation and depth with a nice rim light. Feel free to fill with flash if possible to counteract the fact that you’re shooting the shady side of the subject. Failing that, open up and let the bright backlight not only separate the subject from the background but also overexpose the background to make it even cleaner.

- If the animal is in motion, utilize a slow shutter speed and pan the camera to create motion blur. Not only does it help keep zoo images from feeling too static, it’s another way to disguise an otherwise unattractive background.

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