As 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.
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.
The 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).
Also, 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.
Make 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.
Try 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.