Life behind bars : challenges of zoo photograhy

AtillyMai13-01As parents of a 4 yr old, we’re devoted zoo goers. And as an enthusiast photographer, at least a camera usually comes along (if not two…). Now as we’ll all experienced, the pictures we bring back from the zoo can be… disappointing. Bars, fences, unnatural habitat, none of the classic zoo environment is geared toward clean backgrounds and flattering images.

AtillyMai13-14However, with a little help from above, successful shots may be achieved

I had to smile at the zoo yesterday, watching the general picture taking population fall into two great categories, none of which, I’m afraid, brought too many good shots home.

AtillyMai13-34The first group is made of life optimists who embrace the task of photographing far away animals with… their cell phone (or compact camera, the end result being more or less the same). Good luck ya folks. The second group, equally optimistic (albeit slightly better prepared), is lugging DSLRs equipped (for the vast majority) with either a typical “kit” zoom lens, or even a farther reaching cheapo all purpose slow AF zoom. While the intention of bringing the right tool is golden, in this specific case, it falls short. Slow apertures (typically 5.5, or worse yet 6.3 at the long end) are not suited to freeze animal motion without sending your ISOs skyhigh, and autofocus will miserably struggle with those bars and grilles and fences. Arghh…

So what you actually DO need, is a fast, high quality telelens (zoom or prime, doesn’t matter) that you’ll focus manually (here a NEX camera featuring Focus Peaking helps greatly, needless to say). Lower ISO, cleaner pictures, better subject isolation, and more importantly, critical focus where YOU want it. In certain cases, if distance from fence to animal is right, you might even be able to *erase* that fence completely (now, that’s one neat trick).

AtillyMai13-18NBAlso, don’t hesitate to shoot all the animals that tickle your fancy. Zoos don’t only offer exotic species, but a lot of more mundane and accessible ones as well. I, for instance, love deer, goat and, most of all, sheep. Rams mesmerize me and can make compelling subjects.

AtillyMai13-08Male peacocks are stunningly colorful, and a fast quality lens really makes this one stand out.

AtillyMai13-05Since you’re not in control of the environment in zoos, working on your composition is essential. Try to deal with what you have and get the most of it

AtillyMai13-20If something doesn’t look special or good enough out of camera, try cropping, various filters or turning into black and white.

AtillyMai13-22Colors and texture can hold some interest, even from the most ordinary species. Shoot ducks, lama and geese.

AtillyMai13-23Sometimes visitors are part of the picture. The behavior and attitudes of humans can be as worthy of documenting as the animals themselves.

AtillyMai13-24Go tight. Make portraits. With relatively static zoo guests, such as lamas, it’s reasonably easy to get very critical focus even in manual mode.

AtillyMai13-31Include your kids. The rapport they have with animal is often compelling.

AtillyMai13-38Go dramatic black and white. Can make interesting an otherwise boring picture.

AtillyMai13-29Embrace the bars. When you can’t work around fencing, make it a part of the story. After all, it’s the foundation of zoo reality.

AtillyMai13-35Show peaceful scenes. We always try to catch something close or dramatic. Sometimes the animals just resting quietly carries a sense of serenity.

AtillyMai13-32Close and personal works well for deer and the like. The big, soft eyes benefit from a close approach, and those species are usually not behind heavy bars.

AtillyMai13-09Show off. Nature loves to impress, capture it !

AtillyMai13-15Make yourself look good by taking advantage of those species you CAN shoot without bars and fencing. This little fellow was standing on an elevated spot inside a large concrete pit. By using my 135 F3.5 OM tele lens wide open, I emulated the uncluttered look of the wild and got typical expression and optimum sharpness.

AtillyMai13-11Try to get at least ONE good shot of the big cats. If the lion is sleeping and/or heavy bars (usually both), try to find a pen with a glass window, and shoot until you get at least one worthy shot you’ll be proud of. Be patient. I spent five solid minutes doing burst on this leopard going up and down its space.

AtillyMai13-07Get a sense of the place, and everything it can offer. Like here a white male peacock in full courship attire, looking very regal.

AtillyMai13-19SndAgain, make (gentle and limited) use of color filters to add a little drama to an otherwise bland shot.

AtillyMai13-10Shoot the fenced lion. Nobody will mind that he sleeps. We’ve come to expect it, right ?

LionB&W01Try a little art. Heck, why not ?

AtillyMai13-37Go square. Of 4:3, besides the traditional 3:2

AtillyMai13-25AtillyMai13-28Don’t forget enjoying your visit, so don’t obsess about photography either 😉

AtillyMai13-12Try different angles to stress detail

AtillyMai13-06Enjoy simplicity

AtillyMai13-26NBAtillyMai13-16Overuse meerkats !

AtillyMai13-04and lemurs

AtillyMai13-17and deer.

AtillyMai13-13Crop heavily if needed (here the 24MP sensor of the NEX 7 is godsend)

AtillyMai13-21And don’t be shy to use Photoshop (or any image editing program of your choice). Zoo pictures welcome a little enhancement.

AtillyMai13-33The end

About marla2008

Shutterbug. Shallow DOF nut. Mother of Child. Student of the Horse.
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4 Responses to Life behind bars : challenges of zoo photograhy

  1. Laurent says:

    Great pics, love it! I specially liked the B&W pics. Just managed to break my DSLR (LCD, I am still going to try to fix myself first), so I might take a second look (for the second time) for mirrorless….would be so great to get a an affordable focus peaking mirrorless!

  2. marla2008 says:

    I’m on my second LCD display replacement with my NEX 7. Terrifying at first (lol), but in fact pretty doable. You can find NEX 5N bodies for next to nothing these days, and even the 6 and 7 are pretty heavily discounted. The 7 remains the best camera I’ve had in a long, long time.

  3. The zoo hasn’t looked so interesting in a long while! Excellent images. Love the compositions. Especially dig The Ram and The Meerkat 🙂

  4. Laurent says:

    How , here is my answer to your LCD replacement!

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