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10 tips for capturing pro-level animal images at the zoo

Snapping the perfect picture of a wild animal can be one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences for any photographer.

Not everyone has the time or money to travel the globe looking for wild animals to photograph, but a visit to the zoo is the next best thing.

Here are 10 ways to capture professional-grade images of all your favorite animals at the local zoo.

1. Find the right pose

The most compelling animal images are those where the subject is looking straight at the camera. But how do you accomplish this without disturbing the animals?

Never bang on glass enclosures, yell at the animals or disrupt others when attempting to capture the animal’s attention.

Bring a keychain with several keys on it. A quick shake might get the attention you’re looking for since the sound of keys hitting each other could remind the animals of their keepers. 

Always speak with a staff member before shaking your keychain to ensure it won’t frighten or anger your subject. If the animal looks in your direction, make sure you’re ready to snap many photos right away since you might only hold its attention for a second or two.

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2. Shallow depth of field

It can be hard to avoid capturing the enclosure walls and decor when trying to snap the best photo of a zoo animal. Shoot with a shallow depth of field, which is a wide-open aperture using a small f/stop. 

This technique isn’t easy since your camera’s capabilities and lighting conditions do play a role in how clearly an image will come out, but it’s your best chance for a great picture.

3. Zoom

It’s obvious that you would zoom in on your subject, but if you have a zoom lens, you can focus on portraits highlighting the animal’s eyes or on unique features like an elephant’s trunk or jaguar’s spots.

4. Watch the glass

You might have to shoot through glass depending on the animal you want to photograph. To avoid your reflection, place your lens hood directly on the surface. 

Carry tissues and wipe away all the handprints first. If you don’t have a lens hood, use your hands or a coat to block the light near your camera lens. You can also try tilting the lens down to avoid reflections.

5. Avoid tripods

While many photographers want to use tripods to stabilize their cameras, remember you’re at a public zoo. Many zoos won’t allow tripping hazards like tripods near the enclosures.

Some areas are too small to fit a tripod, so avoid the tripod and shoot with a fast shutter speed instead. This eliminates camera shakes and can help you capture a clear shot of a moving subject.

6. Know your subject

Always prepare before taking photos. Understanding your subject’s habits and behaviors helps you anticipate their actions, putting you in a better spot to get the perfect shot. 

Consider when your subject is most active and visit the zoo during that time of day. Research whether they interact in social groups or prefer solitude. Do you want group shots or a single subject? 

7. Find the right time

Many zoos publish a schedule of animal activities, such as feeding or special play times when the animals will be most active. You can use this information to avoid crowds.

You can also call your zoo and ask what hours are best to avoid school trips and tourists.

8. Be considerate

Don’t allow yourself to feel frustrated when a lot of little kids run around, getting in your way. Remember, you’re not the only person trying to enjoy the animals at the zoo.

When there are rushes of people attempting to walk by, be courteous and let them pass. Take a moment to double-check your camera settings or move to a less crowded enclosure.

9. People are animals, too

While it does make sense to focus on the animals at the zoo, don’t ignore the chance to capture the moment a wide-eyed child sees a lion for the first time or an adult smiles at an animal’s antics. 

Pay attention to the people around you and remember that for some, this is their first trip to a zoo. Capture that enormous turtle with your camera, but don’t ignore the visitor staring at it with their mouth open in awe.

10. Buy a season or annual pass

Some animals are more active during certain seasons than others. Don’t pay for a ticket every month or every few weeks, invest in a season or annual pass instead.

Many zoos host special events, so don’t miss them! Take a behind-the-scenes tour or visit during special after-hour events to get fresh and unique perspectives on your subjects.

Passes are also great for the days you want to snap photos as soon as the zoo opens and in the hours before they close. Leave during the middle of the day and just come back at your leisure.

Now you know how to take the best pictures of the animals you love at your local zoo. The best part is you’re not just experiencing these animals in a unique way, but you’re also supporting the zoo with each visit. What a great win-win.

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