Animals make great subjects, but they’re not always easy to photograph, even in captivity. That said, zoos and wildlife parks are great places to hone your wildlife photography skills. They allow you to get closer to the animals than you would in the wild.
The first thing you’ll need is a telephoto lens. We used Nikon’s 55-300mm or 70-300mm zooms, which were ideal, as the maximum effective focal length they give on a DX-format camera is about 450mm. This should be adequate even for larger enclosures, where animals are further away.
Longer focal lengths take a little practice, which is why environments like zoos are ideal. They also increase the risk of camera-shake. As a quick guide, use the ‘reciprocal rule’, where you divide the effective focal length into ‘1’ to get the minimum ‘safe’ shutter speed.
For example, if you’re shooting at an effective focal length of 250mm, your minimum speed should be 1/250 sec. You’ll still need faster shutter speeds to capture moving animals.
We’d also recommend shooting raw files rather than JPEGs taking zoo photos. You won’t always have time to think about the perfect settings when you’re shooting, and raw files give you more flexibility to edit settings later on.
Below we offer our tips on the best camera settings to use when shooting zoo photos, but we’ve also got plenty of advice on how to get better animal shots in the artificial surroundings of a wildlife park.…
For more on photography animals, check out our free wildlife photography cheat sheet.
01 Use Aperture Priority
You might think that the obvious way to set a high shutter speed would be by using Shutter Priority (S) mode. In fact, Aperture Priority (A) is better. If you set the widest lens aperture (f/5.6 on the 300mm optic we’re using, for example) then you automatically get the fastest shutter speed available for the conditions.
02 Increase the ISO
For relatively static subjects, a shutter speed of 1/250 sec is a workable minimum, but 1/500 sec or 1/1000 sec is better, especially if the animal is moving. To get these shutter speeds, you might need to increase the ISO. On reasonably bright days, ISO200 or ISO400 should be enough when you’re shooting at f/5.6.
03 Autofocus options
You might also need to check autofocus settings. One of the problems with the standard Auto-area AF mode is that you can’t always be sure what the camera is going to focus on. Instead, try Single-point AF and select AF-C (continuous) so that the camera keeps refocusing as your subject moves. Then choose the focus point yourself.
04 Set up a monopod
Even with faster shutter speeds, keeping your camera steady can be tricky. A monopod is a sound investment if you use longer lenses a lot. The 300mm f/2.8 we’ve got here is a monster, but even a light lens can feel heavy after a day’s shooting. The extra steadiness a monopod provides makes it easier to frame long-range shots more accurately.
05 Hide fences
Where you’ve got animals in captivity, you also get cages. But if you get really close, the mesh of the fence will be so far out of focus that it disappears. You might lose a little contrast, but you can fix that in an image-editor. This also works with glass – just rest the lens against the surface.
06 Shooting indoors
Like many centres, the Cotswold Wildlife Park has indoor exhibits. The artificial light in this reptile house poses problems with brightness, but increasing the ISO to 1600 keeps the shutter speed at 1/30 sec or above, which is fine for slow subjects. Shoot raw files and fix White Balance later.
07 Check the exposure
Assessing exposure can be tricky indoors, because the LCD is so bright that even underexposed shots look fine. When you play back your shot, check the histogram to make sure the exposure is okay. Apply compensation and reshoot if you need to – bright lights can make the camera underexpose.
08 Review your shots
Finally, when you’re relaxing in the cafe after a long day’s shooting, take a proper look at your photos. Many DSLRs will let you convert raw files in-camera, saving new versions as JPEGs. Now’s your chance to experiment with exposure and White Balance settings for indoor and outdoor shots.