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Doing the zoo, Part 1 (09/26/2004)
By Tom Hirsch

Most of us are fascinated by animals that are normally found in parts of the world other than our own. And, fortunately, many of these animals can be discovered near our homes. Of course I am referring to a zoo. Not only are we able to see these animals, but in most cases we can view them in settings that are quite similar to their own natural habitats. This makes for some great picture-taking opportunities.

When planning a photo trip to the zoo, timing can mean the difference between getting some great shots, a few okay shots, some poor ones, or no pictures at all. It might seem obvious that for the best zoo shots it would be a good idea to go on a warm, summer day when there is nothing else to do. You'd be better off looking for other ways to spend your time. According to experts, the best time of year for zoo photography (and zoo visiting in general) are spring, fall and winter.

Where do people go on hot, muggy, summer days? To the beach or the zoo. Let others go to the zoo while you take in the beach. Wait for a cooler day to visit the zoo. Animals can be as lethargic as people when the weather is hot and humid.

Although most zoo animals are used to people, large crowds can make many of them nervous, and, in some cases, reluctant to venture very far from shelter. Great numbers of people also make it difficult for a photographer to maneuver into the best position for picture-taking. For these reasons, you'll want to stay away from the zoo on weekends and holidays. Go on days when most people are working and kids are in school.

Many zoo animals have an outdoor area where they can go to exercise, and an inside space to which they can retreat in order to avoid a lot of strangers or find some cool shade. The most interesting zoo pictures are made when the animals are moving around outside. They don't have to be running, jumping, swinging or flying, but you don't want them to be sleeping either.

Try to not rush when taking pictures of a zoo exhibit that appeals to you. Take pictures when you see interesting things happening, but stick around and observe how the animals act and react with each other. By watching long enough, you'll be able to anticipate when something interesting is about to happen, and you'll be ready to snap it.

While watching the animals in an exhibit, pay attention to their surroundings also. Try to make the setting as natural looking as possible. You'll want to avoid people, fences, and other manmade things, unless you're interested in showing that it is a zoo setting. One way of setting an animal apart from the background is to take pictures of the animal in sunlight with the background in shadows. Not easy to arrange, but if you're there at the right time, the results can be great.

Time of day has a lot to do with how an animal might behave in a given situation. During the early morning or late afternoon hours, many animals are the most active. This is also the time when people are least apt to be around. Moreover, if the sun is shining, the elongated shadows can add an interesting effect. As an added bonus during the early and late hours of the day, sunlight coloration is warmer than it is during the midday hours.

Seek out information on the best times for getting the best pictures. Many zoos have brochures giving information on feeding times for specific animals, best locations at various times of day, times during which certain animals perform in front of an audience, etc. If a brochure doesn't answer all your questions, ask a zoo attendant or guide for assistance.

Next time, more ideas on taking pictures at the zoo. 


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