When Animals Don’t Smile: 10 Zoo Photography Tips

Taking photos of animals at the zoo is a lot different than photographing your pet dog at home. You can’t spend hours getting the right lighting and angle, you can’t change the background, you can’t position the animal differently, and you can’t put quirky objects near the animal to get a funny picture. In zoos, you’re stuck with what’s in the exhibit. But this challenge is what makes the outcome so rewarding; taking a stunning photograph despite the obstacles that come with zoo photography is a difficult feat, but with a little practice, you can become an expert. Below are some tips to help you achieve the best photographs possible. All these photos were taken at the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro, NC.


1. Look for special moments.


Especially when there are multiple animals, look for intimate moments where they interact with one another. These shots end up looking very special and unique, as the interaction between two animals is never going to be exactly the same.


2. Get in close.


Zooming in is crucial. Many animals prefer not to sit right in front of the fence, so zooming in makes the image look more like you’re just hanging out with your bear friend and less like you’re far away with a fence dividing you.


3. Don’t rule out any animals.


I’ve never had any particular desire to photograph ostriches, and I had very low expectations when I arrived at that exhibit. To my surprise, however, the ostrich ended up being my favorite animal to photograph. I was able to get very close to it, and it was extremely expressive and engaging.


4. Go to all the exhibits, especially the butterfly house.


A lot of zoos have butterfly houses or aviaries. These are great, because they allow you to be in an enclosed environment with animals that you normally would never be able to get close to. But, as pointed out in this blog, remember that these areas are often humid, so you need to wait for your camera to transition to the climate change as to avoid condensation on the lens.


5. Focus on the eyes.


Just as with photographing people, the eyes are essential for telling a story with your photo. Focusing on an animal’s eyes will help create a more personal connection between your subject and the viewer of your image.


6. Use the surroundings to your advantage.


Reflection in the water making your shot look less like you originally planned? Find a way to use that to your advantage! You can’t control the animal’s habitat, but you can control how you photograph it.


7. Be patient.


People spend an average of 28 seconds at each exhibit. The chance of having the perfect, most photo-worthy moment in those 28 seconds is highly unlikely. Be a little patient and you’ll capture a unique, interesting moment.


8. Crop images to help tell a story.


Showing just part of an animal often tells a better story than showing its entire body, especially if this means zooming in on the face. You can do this in post-production, but look for different ways to frame the same shot when you’re in the field, too.


9. Get low.


Oftentimes, zoo visitors are above the animals, so photos are taken at a downward angle. As explained here, this distorts features and creates boring compositions. You can fix this by kneeling down to be at the same eye level as an animal; this creates a much stronger photo.


10. Be creative!


Zoos present a lot of opportunities to be creative. Play around with different types of compositions, use the background to enhance your subject, and use the rule of thirds to make your images more dynamic and engaging. And, above all, have fun!

About the author: Lisa Dzera

I’m a graphic, motion, and UI designer who thrives on finding creative, outside-the-box solutions to design challenges. I have a love for coffee and an eye for design.

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