I have often thought of what it would be like to join an African expedition to photograph animals on safari. How great would it be to photograph a lion pride resting in the mid-day sun within the savannah? As much as many of us would like to photograph exotic animals in their natural setting, this type of adventure is simply unattainable for most. For those who missed the bus to join the National Geographic crew, we are left with the next best thing…the local municipal zoo.
Taking quality photographs of animals at the zoo is actually a little more involved than most may be led to believe. If you venture to the local zoo with your point and shoot camera in the mid afternoon, you will most likely be quite disappointed with your shots. This does not necessarily mean the animals did not want to be photographed, rather you may have been ill prepared for the session. Here are some do’s and don’ts to consider when photographing animals in captivity.
Do arrive early. Most animals are active in the early morning hours when it is cool. By arriving early, you will be able to capture more active shots of animals. As the morning wears on, the animals become more docile and are more apt to seek shade. The larger animals are more likely to be the first to settle down for the day, so make the large cats and other carnivores your priority.
Don’t bother to visit animal sanctuaries during peak hours. Most visitors like to visit the zoo during weekends and holidays. If your objective is more serious minded than the family outing, then you are asking for a very unproductive session as other visitors vie for optimal vantage points, which is where you are trying to be at the same time. Not only will you become frustrated by other visitors, but you will also become a hindrance to them…it’s a two-way street. Do yourself and the other patrons a favor and avoid the park during the busiest hours.
Do plan your shots. Most zoos are quite large and have many exhibits. Visit the park’s web site or obtain maps and attraction information and study the layout. By planning your shots ahead of time, you will have a better idea of where to go and what objectives you plan to achieve. Create a checklist to help you keep on track.
Don’t arrive unprepared. My old college professor used to always say “Success rewards the prepared mind.” This adage holds true for photography. There is no need to bring a ton of equipment with you, but you will surely benefit from bringing the right equipment, such as a tripod, a zoom lens, a wide-angle lens, a flash, extra batteries, extra media cards, and perhaps some neutral density and polarized filters.
Some facilities offer private tours for those who are willing to pay a little extra, or for those who are working for the media. With some prior coordination you may be able to schedule an interview and a private photo shoot. If you are granted such an opportunity, you should have a very specific objective complete with outline and story board. If your objective is to do a story on, let’s say a polar bear exhibit, then you should communicate your desires to the zoo staff and provide a prepared list of questions and desired shots ahead of time. Be sure to identify your target audience as well as your affiliations. If you are granted the privilege of a private access tour, then be sure to publish the exhibit in the best possible manner and give credit to the staff where credit is due.