You’ll often find many people visiting the zoo on their day off when the weather is good. In this article, I have put together 7 tips for taking shots of zoo animals that will work with either a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. (Edited by studio9)
Tip 1: Prepare a Telephoto Lens
A telephoto lens is essential if you want to capture animals up close. No matter how close up you are able to view the animals, there will still be quite a distance between your camera and the animal. A good idea would be to prepare a telephoto lens of around 300mm at 35mm film-equivalent. If possible, I would even recommend a lens in the range of 400 to 500mm.
If you’re using an APS-C camera, the corresponding focal length will be 1.6x more, so a lens of around 200mm should be sufficient. You should also be all set with a kit lens in the 55 to 250mm range. However, if you don't have a telephoto lens or are thinking of buying a new one, I would recommend getting a 70-300mm lens.
For APS-C EOS cameras
EF-S55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM
The EF-S55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM zoom lens allows you to use a telephoto range of around 400mm at 35mm film-equivalent.
For full-frame EOS cameras
EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
If you have a full-frame EOS camera, the standard telephoto lens is the EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
Tip 2: Use a fast shutter speed!
The more telephoto you go, the more pronounced camera shake can be. Also, you’ll be taking shots of animals who won't stay still for you. If possible, try using a shutter speed of at least 1/300 sec. I would recommend setting the shooting mode to Aperture-Priority AE (Av), and using the smallest f-number (maximum aperture). Once you have set the maximum aperture in Av mode, the camera will automatically set the fastest available shutter speed for the shooting condition. If the shutter speed is still not fast enough for your liking, you can also try increasing the ISO speed.
How to use the Aperture-priority mode *For EOS 700D
1.Set the camera to [Av] mode.
Turn [ON] the power supply and adjust the Mode Dial to the [Av] mode.
2. Turn the Main Dial.
Turn the Main Dial with your index finger to change the f-number. Turn the dial to the left to reduce the f-number and approach the maximum aperture. Turn the dial to the right to increase the f-number.
3. Check that the f-number is changed.
The current f-number will appear on the rear LCD screen in the area circled out on the above image. Turn the Main Dial and check that the f-number has changed before taking the picture.
Tip 3: Get as close as you can to the cage or fence
Naturally, a cage or fence stands between your camera and the animal. Try eliminating the cage or fence in your photos where possible. To do so, get as close to the cage or fence as you can when shooting. You’ll find that the cage “magically” disappears from view when you do this.
Use a telephoto lens, set a small f-number, and get either close to or far away from the objects that you want to blur out. In doing so, you will be able to greatly blur the cage or fence that you want to leave out of your images, so that they do not stand out. This is how you can make the cage or fence disappear from view.
For example, in the photo below, there was a cage between the monkey and myself, but you can’t really see it at all. You can make a thin mesh cage almost completely disappear just like that! However, you should take note that if the cage mesh is thick or the animal is close to the cage, you may not be able to make the cage disappear from view.
Also, if your camera is set to automatically select Auto Focus (AF), it may end up focusing on the cage in the foreground. At such times, try using Single-point AF (Manual selection) or Manual Focusing (MF).
EOS 7D/ EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM +Extender EF 1.4xII/ FL: 280mm/ f/5.6/ 1/500sec./ ISO 1600
Tip 4: Be bold; get up close
When shooting animals in a zoo, rather than placing the whole animal in your frame, capturing the animal with bold close-up shots can make for a refreshing change. While there is nothing wrong with taking shots of the animal in its entirety, you may find extraneous man-made structures in the background, which often makes your photos look simply like a record of having gone to the zoo. Besides, when you get a close-up of the animal's face, it gives the animal personality and makes it look more adorable.
EOS 7D/ EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM + Extender EF 1.4xII/ FL: 280mm/ f/5.6/ 1/500sec./ ISO 250
EOS 7D/ EF70-200mm f4L IS USM + Extender EF 1.4xII/ FL: 280mm/ f/5.6/ 1/800/ ISO 200
EOS 7D/ EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM + Extender EF 1.4xII/ FL: 280mm/ f/5.6/ 1/800sec./ ISO 200
Tip 5: Focus on a specific part of the animal
When taking photos of animals, we often can't help but capture a front view. However, animals have their own defining features that we can focus on. You can get interesting shots when you shoot a close-up of only a specific part of the animal that you find adorable and that makes it stand out from other animals.
Can you recognize which animals these defining features belong to?
EOS 7D/ EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM + Extender EF 1.4xII/ FL: 208mm/ f/5.6/ 1/640sec./ ISO 200
EOS 7D/ EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM + Extender EF 1.4xII/ FL: 280mm/ f/5.6/ 1/1000sec./ ISO 640
Tip 6: Spend more time with an animal that catches your eye
Animals are free-spirited. They are not necessarily going to put on good expressions all the time. If you find an animal that catches your attention, try taking the time to observe it and keep going at it until it puts on a good expression. By taking some time to follow an animal, you may find it with an unexpectedly interesting expression.
Also, with animals that are just not going to move no matter what, perhaps you could try coming back at a different time, or aim for the animal's meal time. To take good photos, you’ll need to be as persistent as the paparazzi.
It is also important to take a lot of shots. There might only be a fleeting moment when the animal puts on a good expression. Don't be afraid to take a number of shots, or even dozens of shots in some cases, at one location.
EOS 7D / EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM + Extender EF 1.4xII/ FL: 280mm/ f/5.6/ 1/1000sec./ ISO 200
A meerkat basking in the sun. Doesn’t it look cute, as if it were saying, “Look at me”?
I took a number of shots for this scene, but this was the only shot that I could get of its eyes looking straight into the camera.
EOS 7D/ EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM + Extender EF 1.4xII/ FL: 280mm/ f/5.6/ 1/1600sec./ ISO 800
"Look what I found!" This beaver was only swimming around at first, and didn’t have any attractive expressions for a while. After observing it patiently for a while though, the beaver started rummaging around in the water for some reason. It then brought me a leaf!
EOS 7D/ EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM + Extender EF 1.4xII/ FL: 280mm/ f/5.6/ 1/500/ ISO 200
A baby monkey, with a surprised expression that seemed to say "Wow! Look at that!"
I thought this baby monkey was cute, so I followed it for some time. This was the only time it showed this expression, and even then, only just for this moment.
Tip 7: Try cropping your photos
Even when you shoot with a telephoto lens, the animal you are targeting might be too far away for you to capture a large image. Instead of giving up, try cropping your photos after the shoot. The latest cameras are high resolution, so some cropping should not impact image quality. However, cropping photos that are out of focus or that have been affected by camera shake will only make the blurring or shake more pronounced in the photo. When taking your shots, try configuring your camera to get the best possible image quality.
For example, this photo of a lion has actually been cropped.
EOS 7D/ EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM + Extender EF 1.4xII/ FL: 280mm /f/5.6(cropped)/ 1/500sec./ ISO 1600
Below is the original photo. This was as close up as I could get using the lens that I had on hand. As you can see, the surrounding atmosphere is not bad, nor is it a fail, but it does lack some impact.
EOS 7D/ EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM + Extender EF 1.4xII / FL: 280mm/ f/5.6/ 1/500sec./ ISO 1600
To be able to capture a photo of the lion as large as it appears in the cropped photo without cropping, you would need a 500-600mm lens. That would be a very heavy lens, but more importantly, it would also be expensive, so it is not the kind of lens that everyone would have on hand. If you are having trouble getting sufficiently close-up, it is fine to crop the photo after taking it.
So, those are my 7 tips for taking photos at the zoo!
Because animals won't stay still for you, it might be challenging to get the shots that you want, but just looking at the different expressions that they go through will be sure to make your day.
So why not take your camera along with you to the zoo and try them out for yourself!
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