Getting the best picture on a trip to the zoo

19 photos

A trip to the zoo is often a visually inspiring experience. The exotic look of the animals paired with their unique and entertaining behaviors create moments worth capturing. Sometimes glass, cages and fences get in the way of an ideal shot, but none of it has stopped veteran zoo photographer Jeffrey F. Bill. Use his tips on your next trip and if you’re lucky, you’ll walk away with a compelling image.

Readers who take part in The Baltimore Sun’s weekly photo contest, SunShots, can use these tips for this week’s topic, A Trip to the Zoo. Learn more about SunShots and see previous winners.

If you go this Saturday or Sunday you can check out the Brew at the Zoo.

By Jeffrey F. Bill

For the last 16 years I’ve had the pleasure of photographing the animals at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.  During those years I’ve learned from successes and failures how to get the best animal shots.  Here are some tips to help make your photographic safari a success.

  • Equipment– For some smaller exhibits, a point and shoot camera with a good zoom will suffice. Even smart phones such as the iPhone 4s can produce decent animal photographs.  For shooting through bars, fences and glass, I recommend a digital SLR camera with a long zoom lens. A longer lens will bring you closer to your subject and give you more depth of field control.Many point and shoot cameras, as well as SLR’s, allow you to set the shutter speed and aperture manually.  This is key as the automatic settings don’t always produce the results you want. Generally, I shoot animals with nothing shorter than a 200mm lens, and with a camera that will shoot several frames per second.  These subjects are usually moving so I rarely shoot below 1/250th a second to stop the action.
  • Short depth of field – With most exhibits, you’ll be shooting through bars, fences or glass, so set your aperture at f/2.8 or f/4 and use the longest possible focal length – the longer the better.  A short depth of field makes these obstacles seems to dissolve away.
  • Light  – I usually prefer an overcast day so there are no harsh shadows or highlights to deal with. This produces a nice soft diffused light. I also like late afternoon light, but when necessary I’ll shoot with an on-camera flash.  If shooting through glass, I position the flash as far from the lens as possible, angled slightly up and away.  Shoot with the lens as close to the glass as possible and with your hand as a shield above the lens to reduce lens flare.
  • Patience and Luck – If you have the time, wait. The animals are in charge here and chances are they’re not keen to stick to your schedule. Don’t try and photograph everything at the the zoo in one day. Before every trip, I plan which exhibit to visit and I’ll shoot nothing else. Select one or two animals such as lions or chimpanzees. Commit some time at the exhibit and be patient. Often, I will spend several hours at an exhibit and if I produce one great shot it was a successful day. If you have enough time with the animals, something is bound happen. Your subject will turn the right way, in the ideal spot and – if you’re really lucky — you’ll be at the right place at the right time to capture it.
  • Timing – Be sure to get to the zoo when it opens, as you’ll find the animals are most active in the morning. We’ve all been there – a trip to the zoo at midday in the summer and all the animals are enjoying an afternoon nap.   In the morning, they are exploring the exhibit, marking their territory and paying attention to visitors.

The best advice: be patient and shoot a lot.

Good luck and enjoy your trip to the zoo.