Lehigh Valley Zoo Animal Care Department – Hi all! My name is Katie and I am currently an intern with the Animal Care Team at the Lehigh Valley Zoo. Photography has been a hobby of mine since I was a kid, and after I got my first ‘fancy’ camera (a Canon 70D for anyone who is curious) I more seriously started trying to figure out how to perfectly capture all the beautiful, interesting, fun, captivating moments around me. I’ve played around with shooting pictures of family, friends, landscapes, portraits, objects, movement and had plenty of other random shots that I took just to see if I could. However, my favorite subjects, by far, are animals. I love trying to capture a bit of their personality and their majesty; I do my best to do justice to both the species and the individual in every shot. Over the past couple years I have gathered a lot of practice capturing photos of animals in zoo settings, and I am excited to share with you all some of the tips and tricks that I have figured out for getting great zoo photos!
Tip #1: Be patient.
You don’t need a top-of-the-line camera or 20 years of experience to get good animal photos. A great shot of a zoo animal comes from a photographer who is patient enough to sit outside of an enclosure, learn the animal’s habits, and just wait for the perfect position, interaction, or whatever else they hope to capture. Behind every gorgeous photo of an animal that you see there are most likely hours if not days or weeks of waiting for the perfect moment. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get the photo that you were hoping for right away. And keep your eye open for special events at zoos near you that might give you a chance to get closer to some of the animals, or to learn more about their behavior. The more you know about your subject the more ready you can be to snap a great photo.
Tip #2: Get to the zoo early.
Waiting for the right shot is generally not something that you as a photographer can control, but you can control when you visit the zoo. Generally speaking, zoo animals are most active in the morning, so getting to the zoo as early as possible will increase your chances of seeing animals moving around, like catching the otters swimming or wrestling instead of napping. Many of the animals at the Lehigh Valley Zoo receive part or all of their diet in the morning, as well as enrichment items like puzzle feeders, mirrors, or novel scents for them to investigate. By arriving early, you will be most likely to witness the animals interacting with these items as they are still new and interesting things for the animals to check out.
Tip #3: Use a high shutter speed and large aperture.
Okay, so onto some more technical advice. If you are using a camera that has a manual control option, it is worth your time to learn how to use this feature. There are slight differences between every camera brand and model, so you will have to do a bit of research to figure out your controls, but doing so will allow you to have much more control over your shots. If you are already shooting in manual mode there are two specific things to consider when taking photos in a zoo setting. First, animals move, and some of them can move very quickly. In order to make sure that pictures of moving animals come out clearly, you need to have a relatively high shutter speed.
Second, while some enclosures use moats or glass to contain the animals, you will inevitably come across a situation where you are trying to take a photo through a fence. This is a tricky one to navigate, and it took me a decent amount of practice to get good at taking photos of animals without getting the fence in the shot. The biggest help for this is a large aperture (or a low f/stop). A large aperture creates a shallow depth of field, meaning that when you focus on the animal, the things in front of and behind the animal are blurry. Additionally, do your best to line up your lens with a hole in the fence if possible; this makes sure that at least the center of your picture will be clear. By getting close to the fence and waiting until the animal is further away from it you can increase this effect and minimize the presence of the fence in your shot. I took this picture of Ephialtes, the bald eagle, through the wire fence of his enclosure using these tricks, and the fence came out nearly invisible.
Tip #4: Zoom in and shoot in the shade.
While not always necessary, having a lens that can zoom in is certainly helpful in some situations. Animals in large enclosures, while visible, will not always be near where the visitor can access. Having a lens capable of zooming in allows you to cover that distance and still capture a clear, close image of the animal. Plus, when you have to shoot through a fence, having the ability to zoom in allows you to wait for the animal to move away from the fence, minimizing the presence of the fence in your shot. One last piece of advice to help you get through that fence: pick a shady section of fence to shoot through. Fence that has sunlight reflecting off of it is more likely to show up in a photo.
Tip #5: Watch your backgrounds.
This probably classifies as a general photography tip, but it is easy to forget while you are focusing in on an animal, trying to get that perfect pose. Even if the animal looks great, a photo can be ruined by the presence of an unnatural or cluttered background. Try to position yourself somewhere that the area behind the animal is clear and natural so that they can be the sole focus of the photo and your viewer doesn’t get distracted by the things around them. Taking the time to analyze the whole frame creates a more deliberate shot which often leads to a much better overall outcome.
These are just a few tricks that I have discovered to improve my zoo photos, and I hope that you have picked up at least one new idea to help you along your photography journey. I seriously cannot emphasize enough the importance of patience in the endeavor to capture those perfect animal moments. Take your time at each enclosure! Getting to know the animals is not only a fun learning experience, but it will also reward you with that perfect shot.
Written by Katie Esbenshade
Animal Care Intern
Lehigh Valley Zoo | Schnecksville, PA