by Tom Hirsch
Just getting a picture of an exotic animal in the zoo can be an exciting experience. But usually we can do better than that. Today, most zoos house the animals in natural-appearing settings. In many cases, bars and cages have been replaced by moats and ditches. These give an unobstructed view of the animals, and provide us with the opportunity of photographing the animals in settings that closely resemble their homes in the wild.
With some animals, it's impossible to avoid bars, fences or glass cages. In these cases you have to do what you can to get a picture. For cages with bars, move as close to the bars as you are allowed and use the telephoto lens. If you have a single-lens reflex (SLR) on which you can manually set the exposure, use the largest aperture (smallest f/stop number). Hopefully, this will throw the bars out of focus.
If it's possible to get close to a fence, place the lens of the camera between the wires. If this is not possible, use the same method as that suggested for the bars of a cage.
Usually, glass cages are only found inside zoo buildings. If you must shoot animals that are behind glass, avoid using flash if at all possible. When flash is necessary, try to place the lens of the camera right up against the glass in order to get a close shot, and also to avoid reflections. But first, check to make sure flash is allowed. Some animals, especially nocturnal ones, can be stressed by any bright light such as flash. If flash photography is prohibited, you should see signs to that effect.
When photographing animals behind glass, it isn't always possible to get close to the glass. If this is the case and you must use flash, shoot at about a forty-five degree angle to the cage. You will probably get reflections, but not of the flash.
Whenever possible, shoot at the animal's eye level. This generalization is for animals that are shorter than you, so it probably doesn't apply to elephants and giraffes.
Some zoos have walk-in aviaries. Such an experience will give you a chance to really try out your telephoto lens. It's extremely difficult to photograph birds on the wing. It is much easier, and just as rewarding, to catch a bird (on film) as its landing on a tree branch. Pre-focus on a branch on which you predict a bird will land. When a bird approaches, anticipate a little. Start taking the picture just before the bird reaches that spot. The larger the bird, the easier this technique works, but you will still need to work fast because a bird isn't going to hover above a branch, waiting for you to snap its picture.
One of the most interesting features of many zoos is the display of baby animals that have been born in captivity. These new arrivals might be shown to the public just once or twice a day. For some great shots, find out when that is, but be there well in advance so you can get an unobstructed view.
No animal picture should look as though the creature has died. Take active, dynamic shots such as a lion yawning or growling, elephants feeding, flamingos strutting, or a giraffe stretching to reach the leaves on a high tree branch. Remember that the season of the year, time of day and climatic conditions can influence the degree of activity.
You want your zoo experience to be an enjoyable one. To achieve this, be sure to follow all posted regulations. Never cross barriers or harass animals for the sake of getting a picture. Also, by being courteous to other patrons you can help make it an enjoyable experience for them, and they will be tolerant of you when you want to get in front of them for a moment in order to get a shot.