Zoos offer a special opportunity for the wildlife photographer. Over time, zoos have evolved into more than a cage and a concession stand. They now contain exotic habitats suitable to the species they contain. Some even offer a safari-like experience that allows you to travel through a habitat in a vehicle. These scenarios offer the wildlife photographer an excellent chance to hone their skills and experiment with composition.
As important as honing the photo skills, the wildlife photographer at the zoo should take the opportunity to learn all they can about potential subjects in the wild. Zoos offer an unprecedented source of information about behavior and when coupled with the ability to actually observe the animals, photographers can hit the field with immeasurable advantage. Because many visitors to zoos are insensitive to the animals they’re observing, the most productive time for the wildlife photographer to go may be midweek and during grade school sessions. Keep in mind though that school groups may be present. Patience in this regard may be as critical as patience in the wild.
Once you’ve selected a subject and reduced distractions to a realistic level, challenge yourself to compose photos that capitalize on the habitat and when seen post-capture don’t reveal that the animal is actually in captivity. Try to wait for just the right moment when the image conveys natural behavior and candor. Because you’ll be limited in your positioning as it affects depth of field, just keep the eyes of the animal in focus and let the rest of the image play out. If cages or wires become pose a challenge, try using a long focal length lens close to the wire or cage and the widest acceptable aperture. This will keep those foreground obstacles softer and less distracting. As flash goes, try to avoid it even if allowed. You’re not likely to use it in the field and not relying on it is great practice. Finally, when shooting through glass, keep reflections in mind. By shooting at an angle to the glass, reflections will be minimized, especially directly in front of the subject.
Zoos have advanced so much in recent years that wildlife photographers owe it to themselves to patronize them. I live near the Saint Louis zoo and was thrilled to learn admission is free. Check out your local zoo and see what it has to offer. In fact, when you travel to other cities, even internationally, be sure to see if your destination has a zoo and make plans to test your wildlife photography savvy in the next best thing to the Serengeti Plain.