I have been blessed to travel to far-off lands to photograph beautiful animals in their wild habitats. However, like many people, if I want to to shoot large or exotic animals here at home, it likely means a visit to a local animal park, aquarium or zoo. One of the most-asked questions I receive is how to take more natural photographs in these restricted environments. Capturing candid photos of animals in captive situations is tricky and takes great patience, but it can be done. Here are a few things to think about.
When to go?
Arrive at your destination as early as possible and be waiting for those doors to open! Animals are more active in the early morning and towards sundown, so be prepared to crash the gate. If you are not an early-bird then head out towards the end of day and be in the park for the last hours of light. Some parks and zoos have interaction times with trainers or zoologists. Find out in advance when these sessions are held and schedule your day accordingly as these encounters often allow for some active and up-close moments with animals, birds or reptiles.
Shooting through bars or glass
Shooting through bars and fencing is one of the biggest obstacles in zoo photography. There are definitely ways to minimize those metal rods, and many of the images featured here are examples of enclosure photos. The trick is to get your lens as close as possible to the bars or fencing and use the smallest f-stop for shallow depth of field. If you position yourself properly and your subject co-operates, you can make those bars disappear. (The tiger above was shot through fencing with a shallow depth of field.) Try to line up your subject so that the most interesting features (eyes, teeth, etc.) are in the middle of the fence holes or between the bars. Depending on what kind of lens and DOF you employ, there could still be some slight discernable lines from the bars, but if your subject is framed with this in mind, it will cause minimal distraction.
Shooting through glass is also a difficult challenge. I always carry a little spray cleaner and lens cloth with me for glass shots. Wipe the glass and get as close as you can — if you have a lens hood (and you should) place it right against the glass to help reduce glare and reflection. Forget the flash unless you want an image with a huge white flare in it.
Pay close attention to your surroundings. Nothing screams "zoo" more than a big plaster rock or a hanging tire. Move around and try to position yourself in relation to your subject so that you have as few unnatural distractions as possible in frame. Some parks and zoos have wonderfully natural enclosures, which can add to your shot. But often, the enrichment devices employed with the animals can really break with reality. That’s not to say that entertaining photos of animals playing with toys cannot make for great candid moments — they absolutely can. Just make conscious decisions about what you want in the frame.
Change your point of view
This applies to all wildlife and nature photography, not just captive animals. Be aware of your perspective. Try to add variety so all your shots are not of you looking down on your subject. Attempt some different angles. Shooting elephants and giraffes from a low position gives a different glimpse of these enormous creatures. Changing your point of view
also helps your eye notice the surroundings, making you more aware of unwanted set accessories in your shot.
Watching animals through a lens can really heighten your awareness of not only how they move and behave, but of all their intricate markings and body features. So, be creative and turn obstacles into opportunities. If those bars are blocking the body, maybe it’s time to try to capture those eye lashes, paws or that bushy tail.
And don't forget: while you walk the pathways between enclosures, pay attention to the gardens and greenery. Often animal parks have lovely trees and gardens where birds and insects make their homes, so be on the look-out for these creatures as well.
A final word on manners. When you visit an animal park, be respectful; it is their home. They are not there to perform on command, so please do not taunt them or annoy them to create a photo moment. If an animal is resting, throwing peanuts at them or stomping your feet only displays bad manners and ignorance. So, keep your peanuts to yourself and happy shooting!
All photos ©njwight. For more wildlife photography, please visit N.J. Wight's Tumblr page