Yup, taking photos at a zoo. Photographers often mistakenly brush off the opportunities for good photography at a zoo. At first glance, it might seem merely like a place to entertain animal lovers and tourists. But placing any personal feelings about zoos aside, and looking at it from a sheer exercising perspective, a zoo is a wonderful place to keep your photography skills sharp and challenged.
Taking photos of animals can be as challenging as you want to make it. For example, let’s look at it from a portrait perspective: The zebras above, I took at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. I didn’t want a simple snapshot of two bored animals in a pen, waiting to be fed. How boring! I wanted something that was indicative of their nature…something that anyone could look at and say, “How cool is that?! I had no idea zebras were that playful with each other!” I waited until these two beautiful creatures were just “doing their thing”. They were clearly happy and playing with each other and didn’t have a care in the world. Their true nature seemed to be on display right in front of me. THAT is what I tried to capture. The key here was shutter speed. We’re trying to freeze the action AND keep a super sharp image. So the higher the shutter speed, the better chance you have on achieving sharp focus.
Now let’s look at zoo photography from an action perspective. As any photographer knows, you’re typically trying to “freeze” a moment in time. In order to do that, you have to understand and be familiar with your equipment. What better way to gain experience than by photographing live animals in their (relatively) natural environment? Obviously a zoo isn’t their true habitat, but it’s the next best thing. And quite safe too. And often, the benefit of this type of setting is that if you miss the shot, chances are that you’ll be able to get multiple chances of the shot. This is where you’ll have to decide things like which aperture to use? Am I aiming for the whole environment or a sharp close up of the animal’s eye? What shutter speed should I use to ensure a sharp image of this creature in action? Do I need a tripod? You can literally take your time setting up your gear and wait as long as you want until you see the shot you think is best! And if it doesn’t look right, do it again! There’s no pressure at a zoo.
This mother orangutan was clearly enamored with her newborn. Seeing a mother of any species (including humans!) caring for her young is a precious thing. In this case, it wasn’t just the body language I was trying to capture. It was the EYES. I’m sure everyone has heard that “eyes are the window to the soul”. Well, that’s still the case here. It was evident to me the mother’s focus was her child. Keep in mind, they were both high up on ropes, with very little beneath them. What I found amazing was that regardless of where she physically was, her eyes were intent on her newborn. How does this relate to photography skills you might ask? Setting your FOCUS POINT. Here, I set the number of focus points to literally one little square (I shoot with a Canon). I placed that one little square directly over the eyes and fired away. If the subject moves, then recompose and shoot again. Simple as that!
Zoo photography can be as fun or as challenging as you want to make it. Not only will you get to see a side of nature that most people don’t, you may find an appreciation for the beauty in it. And hey, if that doesn’t happen, you’re still learning and gaining experience as a photographer.
Keep learning and keep exploring our world. As photographers, it’s our job to show it to everyone else 🙂