Zoo Photography Made Easy

A close up photo of a lion, in profile, at a Zoo near Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

I think the most important component in making it easier for photographers to make great images at zoos is the design of the animal enclosure in question. In the case of the above photo, made at a Bali Zoo, Indonesia, I was only about 2 meters away from the lion. What allowed me to get so close and kept me alive was a huge sheet of glass covering the front of the enclosure. Makes a change from iron bars doesn't it.

An Opportunity Not To Be Missed

The amazing thing was that the lion didn't seem to notice me, despite a couple noisy young women standing right next to me making photos of themselves with the lion in the immediate background. Whether it's one-way glass, post feeding time or the lion becoming so used to the nature of its interaction with humans, within this enclosure, I'm unsure. But it was a great opportunity to make a close up study of this majestic animal.

I would have stayed longer but, on a tight schedule, I felt the need to keep going.  

Honesty is Always the Best Policy

One thing I think that's important when making photos such as this at a zoo is to remain credible and not to diminish the hard work of wildlife photographers, working under far more difficult conditions than I, is not to represent your photos as anything other than what they are. Let me say again, this photo was made in a zoo.

There's a Reason They're Called Wild

I was charged, later in the day, by an angry lion mother when I came a little too close to a cub behind a more regular enclosure. It wasn't so much that I did the wrong thing, it was that the cub had strayed right over to where I was standing. I was careful, taking the camera strap from around my shoulders, to prevent me being pushed up against the cage in the event one of the larger lions was able to get a grip (or a bite) on my lens.

I lifted my camera and, before you could say Blimey Teddy, the mother was standing upright, at almost 3 meters high, staring down at me through the iron bars that separated us. I could feel her warm breath and was very aware of the warning in her eyes. That got my attention, and my respect. And I slept uneasily, with very vivid dreams, for the next few nights.    

I'm no wildlife photographer, though I've made decent images when given the opportunity. I'm Australian and have photographed crocodiles, kangaroos, wallabies, possums, thorny devils and the like. But only in the way a typical tourist would. Crocs give me the Screamin' Willies. I've also been fortunate to have photographed seals, elephant seals, penguins and a variety of birdlife. But I wouldn't call myself a wildlife photographer.

As far as photographing animals in zoos there's a few fundamental approaches that can really add to your success.

  • Pick a zoo and/or enclosure that is known to provide close access
  • Pick an enclosure that offers as natural a setting as possible
  • Try to be there either side of feeding time. This may give you opportunities to photograph certain animals in both more active and restful states
  • Ensure your visit includes at least one bird of prey (or similar) session. Get there early, look at the direction of the light and get a seat that will allow you to have the light behind you so as to be able to avoid harsh shadows that can be detrimental to your photos on bright days.
  • It's often a good idea to sit in the front row to prevent other folks heads appearing in front of you (thankfully those 70's and 80's haircuts are now few and far between) and to allow you to photograph upwards. This will provide a more iconic representation of the bird. 
  • If you find iron bars separating you from your subjects move in close, at your own risk, and position your camera's lens shade on or just in front of the bars. If the bars are particularly narrow, and you have a protective filter in front of your lens, removing the lens shade should allow you to move in a little closer still. But, under no circumstances, move in front of any fencing or barricade, even it that just be a handrail or a bed of flowers.
  • For your safety, and that of your equipment, do not recommend putting your lens through the bars of an enclosure.   
  • As some animals are known to spit and the like, it's a good idea to employ a UV filter on the front of your lens. 

Lens Choice

The lens you need is going to depend on the size of the animal, its relative distance from the camera and whether you're looking for compelling close up or environmental portraits. I made the above photo with a Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS lens on a full frame Canon 5D Mark II camera. In a more traditional enclosure I'd probably need an effective focal length of, at least, 300mm for such a close up, character driven portrait.

Be On Your Best Behavior

The most important thing is not to cause trouble, agitate the animals or draw attention to yourself. Don't parade around like you're something special. If anything that will cause the otherwise good natured zoo staff to begin behaving like over zealous security officers. After all their job is to care and protect. If you want to avoid being hassled behave respectfully to the animals, staff and to other members of the public.

A day at the zoo can be a fantastic educational experience. Why not add to it by making some great photos by which to remember the day. You'll have fun, you'll make a record of the adventure and you'll be able to share those photos with friends and family through social media. What's not to like?

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru