Zoo Photography

FORSYTH COUNTY, NC - For many people, a trip to an exotic location to photograph animals is just not economically feasible. For those in this category, I can greatly sympathize with you. But do not dismay, there are some very nice zoos and rehab centers throughout the United States to help you in your quest to photograph exotic animals.

What Zoo is Best
There are approximately 500 zoos in the United States, but be careful. Not all these zoos are created equal. It is important to check these zoos out on the internet before you step foot in one of them. I like zoos which are good to their animals by offering them good medical care, food and plenty of places to roam. In North Carolina, the best zoo would be the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, NC. If you are looking for a zoo for comparison purposes, this as a gold standard.

Next, make sure the zoo is photographer friendly. Some zoos, like the Atlanta Zoo have stipulations about not using photographs made of "their" animals for commercial purposes. I refuse to give these zoos my money.

Camera Gear
Zoos can offer a unique challenge to the photographer from an equipment perspective. Some zoos, for example, do not allow the use of tripods and so you can only use mono-pods. This is not a deal breaker, but could make some shots nearly impossible. Below is the gear I recommend and how to use each piece. There are links scattered throughout to show examples.

  • DSLR or comparable mirrorless camera - The important consideration here is that the camera has interchangeable lenses and has a megapixel count over 10mp. If you only have a 300mm lens, I recommend the APS-C sensor size. An example is the Canon EOS 7D Mark II or on the mirrorless side the Sony A6500.
  • Medium Telephoto Lens (200 - 300mm range) - it is crucial to at least have this much glass in order to frame the subject in creative ways. In some cases you will be able to fill the frame, but with subjects greater than 20 feet away, you will need to step up. The Tamron 70-300 SP VC is a good, inexpensive lens in this category.
  • Super Telephoto Lens (400 - 800mm) - For zoos and just about any wildlife, I like versatile glass and for me that is the Sigma 150-600 C or Sports version. This covers just about every scenario during a zoo visit. I can shoot shots of small songbirds in the aviary all the way up to tight portraits of a black bear.
  • Macro Lens (100mm to 180mm) - although not a must, having a macro lens will allow you to capture shots of small frogs and reptiles. Furthermore, you can get close shots of the flowers which often decorate the entrances and pathways to the zoo exhibits.
  • Sturdy Tripod - When you find yourself inside a building trying to shoot through terrarium glass, having a tripod is a must. Even with modern image stabilization, there are times you simply cannot get a good, stable shot without one. It really depends on the zoo and how much of the exhibits are indoors. I recommend Manfrotto as a good, inexpensive tripod.
  • Black Rapid Strap or Similar - carrying a 600mm lens through miles of zoo can be tough on the old shoulders and back. This strap will make it much easier to shift the burden a bit from your shoulders. It also allows the photographer to easily put the camera up to his eye because the camera slides along the strap.
  • Comfortable Pack - find a pack that does not cause your shoulders to hurt too quickly after putting it on. You should be able to walk a good hour without having pain. Check out the Moose Peterson MP-3!
  • Good SD, CF Cards - buy good CF cards! I use SanDisk Extreme 32 Gig cards. They are fast enough for video and are very reliable.
Shot List
Below is a list of shots I have taken or shots I look for on a typical zoo visit. Hopefully they will help you pick shots that you want to take next time.

The Close Portrait - the zoo is the perfect place to get close shots with some real feeling and energy. Some of these shots just do not happen often in the field. Below is a shot of a black bear. In this shot, you feel like you can actually see into his soul. This is the shot that presents itself the most.

Environmental Shot - this can only happen at large zoos where the animals have plenty of place to roam. Look for places where there are no bars or fences in the background. Below is a shot of a Rocky Mountain elk bugling. Honestly, I wouldn't know this was in a zoo, if I hadn't taken it. It has an ear tag, but they do this in wild at times as well.

Animals Interacting - this one is tough, but not impossible at the zoo. Look for animals which are social and interact in large groups. A typical animal with this behavior is the baboon. Below, a mother baboon is keeping a young one in check.

Animals in Action or Showing Gesture - in this scenario, we have a single animal that is doing something unusual. Perhaps it is an elephant running or in the case below, a king eider showing off for the female eiders.

In conclusion, I think you will agree that the zoo can be a great place to enjoy animals, test your gear and learn how to make better images without spending 4,000 dollars on a trip. The beauty is that after all this practice in zoos and rehab centers, you will be ready when you do go on one of those once in a life time trips!

Now get out there and enjoy nature (even at a zoo) !

God Bless,

Matt Cuda

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