Zoo Photography Made Easy

A close up photo of a lion, in profile, at a Zoo near Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

Zoo photography is how a lot of aspiring wildlife photographers practice their chops. I loved my visit to the Bali Zoo in Bali, Indonesia. It’s a great place to make fantastic photos of large, powerful wildlife in a safe and easy way.

I think the most important component in making it easier for photographers to make great images in a traditional zoo is the design of the animal enclosure in question.

I made this photo of a lion with my then Canon 24-105 mm f/4 IS lens on a full frame Canon 5D Mark II camera. I was only about 2 meters away from the lion when I made the photo.

In a more traditional enclosure, where you’d expect the lion to be much further away, I'd probably need an effective focal length of at least 300mm for such a close up, character driven portrait.

What allowed me to get so close, without putting my life in danger, was a huge sheet of clear re-enforced glass or perspex covering the front of the enclosure.

I can tell you it certainly makes a change from iron bars and cages.

Photographing a Lion At the Bali Zoo

The amazing thing was that the lion didn't seem to notice me, despite a couple of noisy young women standing right next to me making photos of themselves, with flash, with the lion directly behind them.

  • Was it one-way glass?

  • Perhaps our King Of The Jungle had just been feed.

  • Had the lion become so used to interacting with humans that it no longer considered us a food source.

I know not but, whether behind re-enforced glass or iron bars, I think these animals work out pretty quickly what they can and can’t do.

Either way I was glad to be off the menu and very appreciative of this great opportunity to make a close up study of this majestic animal at the lovely and quite intimate Bali Zoo.  

 
Red Flower and River, Bali

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Honesty is the Best Policy For Photographers

One thing I think that's important when making photos at a zoo is to remain honest about the way in which the images were made.

That is to say I paid a small amount of money to enter a place where it's possible to safely view and photograph wild animals up close.

Yes, these animals don’t live in the wild. But they’re hardly domesticated, either as livestock or pets.

What’s the Value of Zoos in Our World

In principal I’m a supporter of zoos, particular when they’re working to preserve endangered species.

The opportunity for a place like the Bali Zoo to educate the general public on the value of preserving native species and their habitats is important.

Of course zoos are only part of the answer. But I believe they play their part in slowing our race towards destruction.

We need to wake up and take the action that’s needed to pull us back from the brink, before it’s too late.

Surely the inevitable technological (AI) evolution of our species should proceed apace with advancements in our psyche.

My understanding is that a sanctuary, in the true sense of the word, does not buy, sell or breed animals. Rather they take in surplus animals from zoos or injured wildlife unable to survive in the wild.

Clearly wild animals are far better off when they’re not kept in cages. I still remember, as a child, seeing lions pacing around in cages when the carnival/show visited town.

I’ve photographed several large zoos and wildlife parks such as the Werribee Open Range Zoo outside of Melbourne, Australia and the fantastic Singapore Zoo.

When it comes to animal photography I think it's important not to represent your photos as anything other than what they are. That means making mention of the fact when your images were created in a zoo.

The last thing I’d want to do would be to diminish the hard work, expertise and extreme dedication of actual wildlife photographers who work under far more difficult conditions than I’ve done to make the photos in this post.

Let me say it again. These photos were all made in a zoo: the wonderful Bali Zoo.

The sad eyes and expressive face of a Borneau Orangutan at the Bali Zoo.

There's a Reason Lions Are Called Wild

Later in the day I was charged by an angry lion mother when I came a little too close to a cub behind an enclosure.

It wasn't that I did the wrong thing, it was that the cub had strayed right over to where I was standing.

I bent down on my haunches and was careful to take the camera strap from around my shoulders to prevent me being pushed up against the cage in the event one of the adult lions was able to reach through the bars and get a grip (or a bite) on my lens.

I lifted my camera to make an image and, before you could say Blimey Teddy, the mother was standing upright, at almost 3 meters high, staring down at me through the iron bars that separated us.

I could feel her warm breath and was very aware of the warning in her eyes.

Her cub ambled away and she proceed to urinate in front of me. A male lion looked on with what appeared to be a smirk across its face.

That got my attention, and my respect. I can tell you I slept uneasily, having very vivid dreams, for the next few nights.    

A colorful bird feeding at the Bali Zoo near Ubud in Bali, Indonesia.

A Man’s Got to Know His Limitations

I'm no wildlife photographer, though I've made decent images when given the opportunity in very wild and remote parts of the world.

I'm Australian and have photographed crocodiles, kangaroos, wallabies, possums, thorny devils and the like. But only in the way a typical tourist would.

Crocs give me the Screamin' Willies, as do snakes.

I've also been fortunate to have photographed seals, elephant seals, penguins and a variety of birdlife in the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island and Antarctica.

I was co-running a special photography tour at the time.

I'm a travel photographer with a wide and varied range of photographic experiences under my belt. But no, I wouldn't call myself a wildlife photographer.

 

Glenn Guy, photographer and owner of the Travel Photography Guru website and blog, holding a python at the Bali Zoo near Ubud in Indonesia.

 

Tips For Great Zoo Photography

As far as photographing animals in zoos there's a few fundamental approaches that can really add to your success.

  • Pick a zoo and/or enclosure that provides close access to the animals.

  • Pick an enclosure that offers as natural a setting as possible, ideally one where the background is darker than the animal you want to photograph.

    This will help prevent the animal from photographing too dark with an insufficient amount of fine detail in their hide, fur or coat.

  • Try to be there either side of feeding time. This may give you opportunities to photograph certain animals in both more active and restful states.

  • Try to ensure your visit includes at least one interactive (e.g., bird of prey) session.

    Get there early, look at the direction of the light and get a seat that will allow you to have the light behind you.

    This should help to avoid particularly dark (i.e., dense) shadows that can be detrimental to your photos on bright days.

  • It's often a good idea to sit in the front row to prevent other folks heads appearing in front of you (thankfully those 70's and 80's haircuts are now few and far between) and also to allow you to photograph upwards.

    This may provide a more iconic representation of the bird you’re photographing.

  • If you find iron bars separating you from your subjects move in close, at your own risk, and position your camera's lens shade on or just in front of the bars through which you want to photograph.

    If the bars are particularly narrow, and you have a protective filter in front of your lens, removing the lens shade should allow you to move in a little closer still.

    However, under no circumstances should you move in front of any fencing or barricade, even if it’s just a handrail or a bed of flowers.

  • For your own safety, and that of your equipment, make sure you do not place your lens through the bars of an enclosure.

  • As some animals are known to spit and the like, it can be a good idea to employ a UV filter on the front of your lens.

Lens Choice For Zoo Photography

The specific lens focal length you’ll need for zoo photography is going to depend on a number of factors, including the following:

  • The size of the subject

  • Its relative distance from the camera

  • Whether you're looking for action photos, compelling close up or environmental portraits of the bird or animal in question

A lens’s focal length remains constant on a fixed or prime lens, but changes on a zoom lens as you, literally, zoom in or out.

In simple speak a 24 mm-70 mm lens incorporates focal lengths from 24 mm up to and including 70 mm. 

24 mm is a classic wide angle focal length enabling the photographer to record a relatively wide angle view of the world.

Focal lengths of 24 mm or wider are where you’re most likely to see an exaggerated sense of perspective and three dimensional space between foreground and background elements in the frame, when compared to the way our eye sees and our brain perceives that same scene.

50 mm is often referred to as a standard or normal lens.

Back in the days of 35 mm film cameras, before zoom lenses became common place, cameras were sold with 50 mm fixed/prime lenses attached.

But most digital cameras have sensors that are smaller than 35 mm film.

These APS-C and Micro Four Thirds sensors change the way lenses on these cameras render the subjects and scenes you photograph compared to the way they would if used on a full frame sensor camera.

By way of summary here’s what you need to know:

  • Actual magnification doesn't change with the same lens used on any one of these three sensors.

  • The cropping that occurs with sensors smaller than full frame provides the impression that the lens is of a greater (i.e., more powerful) focal length than, in fact, it is.

  • Despite this impression of greater magnification (though it’s actually cropping) that occurs on smaller sensor cameras, the perspective (i.e., relative size of subjects in the frame and the impression of space between them) produced by the lens remains the same regardless of the camera it’s used on.

    The smaller the sensor the greater the depth of field will be for a lens used at a given aperture.

    In other words an actual 50 mm lens on a Micro Four Thirds camera produces a substantially larger depth of field at, for example, f/4 when compared to a Full Frame camera with a 50 mm lens attached.

    This can be an advantage with landscape and architectural photography but, potentially, a disadvantage for certain kinds of portrait photography.

The 70 mm focal length is often considered to be the beginning of the useful telephoto (i.e., telescopic) range.

The greater magnification associated with focal lengths from 70-135 mm helps to isolate the subject from their surroundings.

As such, these mild telephoto focal lengths are well suited to making head and shoulder or half length portraits, particularly on a full frame camera, of individuals from a comfortable camera to subject distance.

When I’m photographing people with my full frame Sony camera I find a focal length of around 90 mm, whether on a fixed/prime or zoom lens, to be optimal in relation to the following criteria:

  • Framing

  • Camera to subject distance

  • The way the average face is drawn in the photo

There’s a lot of information in the above paragraphs.

The easy answer would be to say that most head and shoulder portraits look better when photographed at a focal length of around 90 mm.

The only problem with this is that the cropping that occurs with a smaller sensor camera will often force you to stand further back to adequately compose a head and shoulder or half length photo of a couple.

This will cause you to move further away from your subjects and, as a result, you may find it harder to direct them without raising your voice.

That might make the production of intimate, heartfelt portraits harder to achieve.

What’s The Best Camera For Wildlife Photography?

There’s a whole range of features that professional and enthusiast level photographers should consider when purchasing a camera system for wildlife and zoo photography.

  • Focus capabilities, particularly when photographing moving subjects

  • Frame rate: that is how many photos per second the camera is capable of making

  • Buffer: how many photos can the camera hold, in temporary storage, until previous photos from a burst of images are written to the camera’s memory card

  • Image Stabilization, whether in camera and/or in lens

  • Weatherproof capabilities

It’s reasonable to consider that cameras with sensors smaller than those in full frame cameras offer potential advantages when photographing animals in a traditional or open range zoo.

Full frame cameras, currently available, include the following:

Full Frame Mirrorless Cameras

Full Frame DSLR Cameras

The size of your camera's sensor (e.g., full frame, APS-C or Four Thirds) does not effect perspective, which we can refer to as the relative size and distance between elements within the frame.

However, the sensor size does effect the size of the subject within the frame.

It’s not an optical issue, resulting from the magnification of a more powerful lens. It’s simply due to the size of the cropped sensor when compared to that of a camera with a physically larger sensor.

You see a physically smaller sensor cannot include as much information around the subject (e.g., above, below, left and right) that’s been focused upon.

Because the cropped sensor camera records less information surrounding the subject it will be larger, and appear closer, in the resulting image.

This means you can make relatively close up images with lenses of lower magnification that are substantially shorter, lighter and less expensive than would be the case with a lens of similar quality on a full frame camera.

When working with telephoto focal lengths this is a substantial advantage offered by the small sensor APS-C and Mirrorless cameras.

Buffy Fish Owl at the Bali Zoo near Ubud in Bali.

Be On Your Best Behavior When You Visit The Zoo

Needless to say when undertaking zoo photography it’s critical that you do not agitate the animals or behave in a way that draws too much attention to yourself.

Don't parade around like you're something special. That may cause the otherwise good natured zoo staff to begin behaving like over zealous security officers.

After all the primary job of many zoo staff is to care for and protect the animals.

If you want to avoid being hassled please behave respectfully to the animals, staff and to members of the public.

A day at the zoo can be a fantastic educational experience. So why not add to it by making some great photos by which to remember the day?

You'll have fun, be able to make a record of your adventure and then share those photos with friends and family through social media.

Zoo photography, what's not to like about that?

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru