Zoo Photography Tips

It was a cold and cloudy day. A bit of rain was falling occasionally mixed with a spattering of snow. A perfect day to go to the Oregon Zoo! Why not wait for a beautiful sunny warm day to go to the zoo? Because that's when everyone in the greater Portland metro area goes to the zoo. ALL OF THEM.

Yucky days are the best for several reasons. One, hardly any people. Not that I hate people or anything. I just find it's much nicer when you don't have to squish up to a few dozen people just to catch a glance of the less popular animals. Two, no people equals quiet. Ah... I can actually have a conversation with my fellow zoo companions without competing with the din of screaming sugerized children. Three, no people plus quiet plus cool weather equals lots of active animals. Yay! Lots of stuff to take photos of!!


For this shot, I had a few things going against me. One was the fact that the window of the enclosure was quite dirty. The second was that it was a dark gloomy day, so I had minimal light to work with.

Reduce Depth of Field

This can help you conquer both of the above mentioned issues. For those that are unfamiliar with the term depth of field (DoF), this basically means how much of the photo is in focus. When you minimize the depth of field you increase the size of the aperture of the camera's lens. How does that help, you ask? Well, with an increase in the aperture (smaller f/#), the more light you let in (i.e. an aperture value of f/5.6 has a smaller DoF and lets in more light than a value of f/8). This helps you get a nice crisp subject by allowing the shutter speed to be faster. Also, by minimizing the DoF, the foreground (i.e. dirty glass, wire mesh, reflections) or background (i.e. ugly background, cage bars/mesh) details can be minimized or removed from the photo. By reducing the field, the further something is away from the focused area, the fuzzier it will be. So, if there is dirt on the glass (as there was in this case), it can be fuzzed away. Granted this trick won't work very well on substantial obstructions. However, if in doubt, experiment.

Get Close

Zoos can provide great opportunities to get nice close up shot of animals. So, take advantage of this. In the bobcat photo, I used my wide angle lens and braced myself against some rocks next to the glass. I also crouched down to get on eye level with the bobcat. Because I wasn't zoomed in (much) and I was using a small DoF, I was able to hand hold this photo and have the subject turn out nice and sharp.


To Include the Cage, or Not?

Remember just a few paragraphs ago when I talked about removing the cages from zoo images? So, yeah, sometimes it's just inevitable that the cage shows, as was the case in this bald eagle photo. The only angle I could get was a fair distance away, and I couldn't get a reasonably sharp photo zooming in very much from this angle.

In this case, you won't be fooling anyone when you regale them with tales of how you expertly stalked the creature over several miles of pristine wilderness and got within mere feet of it, just barely managing to snap an amazing photo. Ah well, maybe next time, eh? However, why not make the cage work with the photo of the animal. That's what I attempted to do in this shot. Was I successful? Perhaps. I think the image turned out fairly powerful with the chain link and conversion to black and white.

Short-eared Owl

Minimize Camera Jitter

Tripods and monopods or even leaning against a wall can definitely help to create a sharp image, especially if you want to zoom in close. I have a little tripod that extends from about one foot to about two and a half feet. At the very least, it works nicely as a monopod. This particular day, we brought a full sized tripod as well. Since the zoo was fairly devoid of people, it worked out nicely. We were able to set it up without being jostled by people or worrying about hogging prime observation angles.

The above photo of the owl was taken using the large tripod. This little hooter was out in the open, but he was quite small. As I wanted to get a nice image of his face, zoom was a necessity as was the tripod. It started to rain as soon as I got everything setup (go figure, eh?) but was able to get a few shots before my camera was totally drenched. Still, it didn't turn out nearly as crisp as I would have liked, but much better than trying to take a hand held shot.

A Tiger's Glare

This tiger photo was taken with my little tripod. I positioned it on the metal handrail and was very careful not to move it during the shutter release.

Most of these shots could have been taken using a compact camera with a decent zoom and proper stabilization (whether that be a tripod, monopod, or conveniently placed rock).


Probably the most important thing for taking photos of any animal is patience. If you wait long enough, the animal will face you or come up close or the annoying people obscuring the entire observation window will move on to the next exhibit. You just have to wait a few minutes.

Hope these tips helped. I know they have helped with the quality of my photos.

Technical Details Bobcat Aperture Value: f/5 Focal Length: 92 mm Exposure Program: Aperture Priority ISO: 200 Shutter Speed Value: 1/60 sec Filter: UV Bias: -2

Eagle Aperture Value: f/5.6 Focal Length: 200 mm Exposure Program: Aperture Priority ISO: 200 Shutter Speed Value: 1/400 sec Filter: UV Bias: -2

Owl Aperture Value: f/5.6 Focal Length: 300 mm Exposure Program: Aperture Priority ISO: 200 Shutter Speed Value: 1/7 sec Filter: UV Bias: -1

Tiger Aperture Value: f/5.6 Focal Length: 300 mm Exposure Program: Aperture Priority ISO: 200 Shutter Speed Value: 1/80 sec Filter: UV Bias: -1