A Day at the Zoo

OK, so I’m well aware that I’m going to offend some folks here – mainly, the type who believe that exhibiting any sort of animal is unconscionable, regardless of if it is for entertainment, education, or anything else.  Having said that, let me be unequivocal that I in no way condone the “bad old days” where zoo animals were kept in sterile concrete enclosures that were too small, and tended by staff who had no clue about their charges’ needs and wants.

Fortunately, there are better places today.  Notably, the San Diego Zoo comes to mind, though there are others as well.  As long as the outfit you patronize is doing things the right way (or if you simply don’t care) you can have a wonderful time at the zoo.

Getting good photos on the other hand … well, that can be problematic.  See this example from san Diego.


So in theory, this is a puma who was stalking back and forth in front of the fence (he was quite impressive I assure you).  Mostly though, it looks like an unfocused black blob and a lot of fence.  It’s indicative that I was doing several things wrong, or at a minimum not doing them right.

So a few tips:

  • Use a long lens, preferably a zoom. This will allow you to manage if there’s a crowd around, and will also let you get up close and personal without climbing into the enclosure and becoming snack food.  Particularly handy given that animals are often back away from the edge of their area.
  • Mind your exposure. If the creatures are moving around a lot, or are in low light, you’ll probably need to use a fast shutter speed and/or dial up your ISO.  Auto-exposure may or may not work for you.  Having fast glass will help here too, but may impact your ability to use a zoom (or your pocketbook, ‘cuz those things are bloody expensive).
  • Focus: bars and fences are a nuisance for autofocus. Sometimes the lens will focus on the animal, sometimes on the enclosure itself.  I find that using AF is at best a 50/50 proposition, so feel free to go manual if you’re not getting quality results.  As opposed to the craptacular puma above, see this snow leopard, shot through chain link fence.
Snow Leopard
Snow Leopard
  • Get the schedule for feeding times and follow it. You will have to deal with crowds, but you can get some great action shots!  See ‘snack time’ here – who doesn’t love sushi?
Grizzly Bear Snacktime
Grizzly Bear Snacktime

And if you see other photographers doing their thing, go ahead and accost them and ask questions!  I have rarely found a photographer who won’t gladly talk your ear off given half a chance (and the ones who won’t are usually egomaniacs who aren’t half as good as they think they are anyway).

Happy shooting!

See more of my work at http://www.patricklcahalan.co.nf  and http://www.flickr.com/photos/patricklcahalan


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