Overcoming the Challenges of Zoo Photography

Overcoming the Challenges of Zoo Photography

Portrait headshot of Giraffe from a Zoo

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All photos are original to the author unless otherwise noted. 

This blog post may contain affiliate links.  I may earn a small commission for any purchases made through these links. Click here for the disclosure statement.

All photos are original to the author unless otherwise noted.

Zoo photography is a rewarding type of wildlife photography concentrating on capturing the unique beauty of your favorite animals in their natural habitats without traveling to faraway jungles. Zoos are more accessible than wildlife safaris, but many challenges require techniques and tools to overcome.

With the right combination of creativity, patience, and technical skill, you can create breathtaking photos that will transport your audience into the wild world of wildlife.

What is Zootography, and why should you shoot it

Portrait headshot of a wolf

Mexican Wolf from ABQ Bio Park in Albuquerque New Mexico

zoo photography of a penguin through the exhibit glass

King Penguin from ABQ Bio Park in Albuquerque New Mexico

Zootography is a type of photography that focuses on capturing images of animals in captivity, including zoos, wildlife parks, refuges, or any location where animals are not free roaming. The goal of zootography is to capture these animals in beautiful, naturalistic settings, even though they may be far from their natural habitat.

Zoo animals live more pampered lives, so they have fewer injuries and illnesses than wildlife, which creates more beautiful images. In addition, captive animals are easier to photograph because they are accustomed to being around people and often let their guard down when people are nearby. Zoos may also have set feeding times that excite the animals and allow you to capture peak action. As a result, you can capture unique shots highlighting each animal’s character. Furthermore, photographing zoo animals can help raise awareness about threatened species and conservation efforts for these animals. 

Best Time For Zoo Photography

Overcast Days

The apparent reason to photograph on an overcast day is for the even light and reduced shadows and highlights. But cloudy skies make it easier to capture clear, detailed images through exhibit barriers because there are fewer reflections on the fence and glass surrounding the animals.

Time of day

The time of day isn’t as critical as the sun’s location. Ideally, you want the sun to be behind you and illuminating your subject., but where the sun is in relation to your subject will vary depending on the exhibit’s location and the animal’s current position. Many zoos may not be open during golden hour, so it’s more important to learn to shoot in any lighting condition rather than wait for the perfect light. No part of the day is off limits because even during the part of the day where the light is harsh, you can visit the indoor exhibits.

Know when the enrichment or feeding times are

Photographing animals during mealtime allows for peak action shots of the animals eating or getting excited about their food, showing the natural behaviors and instincts essential to these animals’ lives. Meal time is also excellent for capturing exciting interactions with zoo keepers and the unique relationships between humans and animals living in captivity.

How To Choose the Right Zoo

Eastern Black Rhinoceros

Many types of zoos and wildlife viewing experiences can provide excellent opportunities for capturing compelling wildlife photography. The best zoos for photography are those that have multiple unobstructed viewing angles of the exhibits, a wide variety of animal habitats, and enclosures designed to mimic the animal’s natural habitat.

The best zoo photography opportunities often come from more natural settings, such as safari parks or wildlife reserves. These locations are great for capturing stunning images of wild animals in their natural habitat, living free from cages or enclosures, but the variety may be limited to native inhabitants. Traditional zoos offer more variety and guaranteed sightings of popular animals such as elephants, giraffes, lions, bears, or pandas, but you will have to get more creative shooting through enclosure barriers.

Good Zoos for Photography in the United States:

  • Northwest Trek Wildlife Park In Eatonville, Washington
  • Memphis Zoo in Tennessee
  • Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson,
  • The Living Desert In Palm Desert, CA
  • Minnesota Zoo in Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
  • San Diego Zoo 
  • San Diego safari park
  • Philadelphia Zoo
  • Cheyenne Mountain Zoo | Colorado Springs, CO
  • Bronx Zoo | New York, NY
  • River Bank Zoo in Columbia, SC
  • San Francisco Zoo
  • North Carolina zoo
  • Lincoln Park Zoo Chicago, IL
  • Forth worth zoo, TX
  • Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, Omaha, USA
  • Los Angeles Zoo
  • Disney Animal Kingdom

Good International Zoos For Photography

  • Le Parc Des Felins (France)
  • Highland Wildlife Park (United Kingdom)
  • Singapore zoo
  • Zoo Salzburg (Austria)
  • Langenberg Wildlife Park (Switzerland)
  • Montréal Zoo is called the “Bio-dome”

Visit the Same Zoo Frequently

One of the critical components of successful zoo photography is frequent visits to the same zoo. Regular visits allow you to learn about the animals and anticipate their actions to capture them doing interesting things. In addition, frequent visits to a zoo will enable you to observe the best times to visit an exhibit based on activity level, mealtimes, and the sun’s location. Finally, you’ll witness different behaviors each time you visit and capture unique shots or practice the same image repeatedly until you get it right.

Overcoming Challenges While Shooting

Shooting Through Glass

Blue Iguana from ABQ Bio Park in Albuquerque New Mexico

two sea otters perched on a log

Otters from ABQ Bio Park in Albuquerque New Mexico

Shooting through the exhibit glass can be a challenge because of reflections, fingerprints, scratches, or fogginess in the glass. These imperfections make it difficult to capture sharp images because they obstruct your view and add distracting elements. In addition, many zoos also have limitations on how close you can get to certain animals or exhibits, which can further complicate matters when trying to shoot through a glass barrier. Here are some tips to limit the impact of these obstacles.

Use a Polarizing Filter

One of the best ways to reduce reflections when shooting through glass is to use a polarizing filter. These filters help to reduce glare and enhance contrast, making your images sharper and more vibrant. Polarizing filters can reduce haze, allowing you to capture distant objects with greater clarity. 

Use a Lens Hood

A lens hood serves several essential functions, including preventing lens flare, minimizing bounced light from reflections, and blocking stray environmental light that may interfere with your shot.

Shoot Straight On

Shooting at an angle through the glass can cause distorted and blurry photos, which can make it challenging to get a clear shot of your subject. Shooting through the thick glass is difficult, but to increase your odds of high-quality, professional-looking zoo photos, position the camera straight through the glass rather than at an angle.

Have Someone in Dark Clothing Block Reflections

A simple trick for blocking bright colors and lights reflecting in the glass is to place a person in dark clothing between the source of the reflection and the camera.

Shooting through the fence

Zoo photography of a Bengal tiger
De Brazzas Money resting in a tree
Eagle perched on a log

Get Close to the Fence

Shooting through fences is easier than glass; believe it or not, it’s possible to shoot through a fence and not be able to tell. Lenses struggle to focus on objects that are too close, so the closer the lens is to the fence, the more the fence will disappear. Additionally, the camera is less likely to capture any part of the fence the further away the subject is.

Use a Wide Aperture

Choosing a wide aperture allows better control of the depth of field in your images so that only certain objects (like the subject) are in focus, while others (like the fence) are blurry or out of focus. 

Shoot in the Shade

The shade reduces the amount of light reflecting off of the fence, making it harder for the camera to see it and capture it in an image.

Unnatural Environment

Capture hotshots

A famous quote by Robert Capa said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” An Easy way to eliminate unnatural or distracting backgrounds is by capturing headshots.

Get Detail Shots

Shooting detailed shots is another good way to get around the limitations of zoo photography. By focusing on fine details such as facial expressions, body postures, or feathers and coats, you can still capture their majestic beauty when the background doesn’t look natural.

Closeup of Vibrant Peacock Feathers
Portrait headshot of Giraffe from a Zoo

 

Change Your Angle or Move to Another Side

Sometimes, if you move just a little, you change the outcome of the shot. Moving to another part of the exhibit, or taking a few steps to the side, helps avoid potential obstacles such as an unnatural background, trees, or other animals that might ruin your photo. You can capture more interesting and dynamic images that truly capture the spirit of these amazing animals and their habitats if you get creative and are flexible.

Embrace the Zoo Environment

Try embracing the environment by incorporating zoo visitors into your images or highlighting the connection between people and animals. Another option is to look for opportunities to capture the activities of zoo visitors, whether they are taking selfies with exotic animals or simply enjoying a day at the zoo.

Get creative with your composition by using reflections in water or glass enclosures to capture multiple layers of people and animals in one shot. Another option is to use a longer exposure to blur the movement of passing visitors. With some careful planning and creativity, you can capture meaningful and engaging photos that showcase both the beauty of the zoo’s animals and the excitement of its visitors.

Fixing Imperfections in Post Processing

Selective edits

Selective edits in Lightroom allow photographers to enhance certain aspects of their photos while minimizing the impact of other areas. Using selective edits, photographers can focus on crucial details and bring out the best qualities of their subjects while reducing or removing any unwanted reflections in glass or other distracting elements. Overall, selective editing is an excellent tool for zoo photography, as it can help you take your images to the next level and create beautiful, eye-catching compositions despite the limitations of zoo photography.

Dehaze

This tool removes atmospheric haze, or in zoo photography, haze and blurriness from the glass and fence. Dehaze increases contrast and clarity to bring out the colors and details, so the images appear sharper and more vibrant despite shooting through objects.

Spot removal and visualize spots

Spot removal is an easy band-aid fix in Lightroom for removing unwanted spots or blemishes from your photos, ensuring they look clean and crisp. The visualize spots function within the spot removal tool allows you to identify hard-to-see dust spots that might need additional editing or attention, giving you greater control over your editing process. 

Content-aware fill From Photoshop

Photoshop’s content-aware fill is a powerful tool for removing distracting objects when spot removal doesn’t work. It replaces objects using machine learning to analyze an image and identify the various features to fill in the removed object. As a result, the tool effectively removes artificial objects or other distractions from an image, leaving only the animals and natural elements you want to capture in your photo.

crop or edit out Distractions

Consider cropping out problem areas when spot removal and content-aware fill aren’t working. Cropping cuts out excess space in an image, allowing you to remove unnatural or distracting objects around the photo’s edges. In addition, a tight crop can help emphasize more intimate details about the animals, including their behaviors and emotions.

Dark and moody edit

The dark and moody editing style is perfect for photography because it allows you to enhance your subject’s natural beauty while simultaneously concealing distracting or unnatural elements in the shadows. By using shadows and highlights strategically, you can create a dynamic, engaging image that captures the essence of your subject.

Black and White

Black and white photography is a great way to edit detail shots because it emphasizes the textures, patterns, and shapes of the animals. Removing color is also helpful in directing the viewer’s attention to the subject and away from the bright colors of manufactured objects and busy backgrounds, which are common problems in zoo photography.

 

Author Bio

Author Bio Image

Delaney is a project manager by day and a travel and wildlife photographer by night who is using her skills for translating complex technical language into easy to understand concepts to make photography achievable at all skill levels. You have questions; she has answers.

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